PAKISTAN’S PROBABLE incoming prime minister campaigned as a maverick challenging an entrenched and corrupt political elite. But Imran Khan, who on Thursday claimed victory in his country’s parliamentary elections, is not exactly an outsider. He is indeed an enemy of the major political parties that have dominated Pakistani civilian politics for decades — but he is also the favorite of the Pakistani military, whose overweening power the mainstream parties have been trying to curb.
If Mr. Khan takes office, he will have the support of many Pakistanis who want to see reforms that distribute wealth more equally or that disempower the old political dynasties. But he will owe his position largely to the army and its powerful intelligence service, which helped him win so that they can more easily pursue their own interests — which include siphoning off the lion’s share of the national budget, supporting the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and encouraging other extreme Islamist groups. That means Pakistan, which has been one of the most difficult countries for the United States to work with over the past two decades, is likely to become still more so.
Though no official results had been announced by late Thursday, those reported by local media were close to what the generals were seeking: a solid lead for Mr. Khan, but not enough of one to allow him to form a strong civilian government. The risk for the winners was a popular backlash. So overt and heavy-handed was the military’s intervention in the election campaign, and so questionable the vote count, that some analysts predicted it could trigger sustained unrest. The former governing party of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted from office by court order a year ago and imprisoned this month, said it would not accept the result.
During his time in office, Mr. Sharif challenged the military’s control of foreign policy, including its insistence on permanent hostility toward India and its sponsorship of terrorist organizations. His reward was to be singled out for prosecution on corruption charges. While he was probably guilty of amassing illicit wealth, the court judgments against him were orchestrated by the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, according to one judge of the Islamabad High Court. According to numerous reports, the military also bribed or intimidated members of Mr. Sharif’s party to switch their support to Mr. Khan and forced Pakistani media to tilt their coverage in favor of his campaign.
Mr. Khan, a former cricket star and playboy who now portrays himself as devoutly religious and a nationalist, seems to have few foreign policy views other than antipathy toward the United States and its war on terrorism; he has endorsed the Taliban cause in Afghanistan. That suits the generals, who, since the Trump administration’s suspension of U.S. military aid, no longer much pretend to comply with U.S. demands to cease support for the group. Pakistan’s de facto rulers now seem to believe that their backing from China, which is investing tens of billions of dollars in the country’s infrastructure, gives them the freedom to pursue their baleful purposes more openly. Mr. Khan’s election is evidence of their renewed ascendance.