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In Pakistan, a ‘yes, we Khan’ moment

Despite a tainted election, Imran Khan will become a prime minister who not only opposed corruption but promised its opposite: honest and accountable governance.

Reuters
A man walks past a campaign image of cricket star-turned-politici­an Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) at a market in Islamabad, Pakistan.

In three elections so far this year – first Malaysia, then Mexico, and now Pakistan – voters have elected new leaders who not only overturned entrenched parties but whose main campaign pitch was against corruption. If there was a big difference among the three, it was in Pakistan. There the winner of a July 25 election, Imran Khan, an Oxford-educated former cricket star-turned-politician, also promised the opposite of corruption: accountable governance.

“Our state institutions will be stronger. Everyone will be held accountable. First I will be subjected to accountability, then my ministers and so on,” Mr. Khan said in a victory speech. He also announced a symbolic action in promising not to live in the palatial prime minister’s residence in Islamabad.

Corruption fighters often lament that fighting bribery and other forms of graft head-on with tough controls and punishment is often the wrong approach. Citizens also want leaders who affirm moral values as an escape from widespread lawlessness. “In a thoroughly corrupt setting,” states Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein, “even people who think corruption is morally wrong are likely to take part because they see no point in doing otherwise.”

Pakistan, with a population of 207 million, is certainly ripe for moral governance. Among the countries in Asia, according to the watchdog group Transparency International, it scores the lowest in the percentage of people who say ordinary citizens can make a difference in the fight against corruption (33 percent). Among Pakistanis forced to pay bribes, nearly two-thirds are poor. And those public institutions in which demands for bribes are most rampant – utilities, police, and courts – are also closest to the poor.

Khan’s victory itself has been tainted by charges from losing parties that the powerful military favored his election. Yet there is little doubt that his popularity and apparent incorruptibility gave him a big edge. His party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, has earned a comfortable margin in the National Assembly to effectively improve the country’s governance.

Pakistan needs impartial, clean, and efficient government to tackle its economic problems, such as a huge debt and shrinking exports. Khan’s election could herald a new social contract between citizens and the state, although he will soon need to assert the supremacy of civilian authority over the military to really keep the people’s trust. “We’re going to run Pakistan in a way it’s never been run before,” he claims. 

To do that, Khan will need to tap into the integrity of the very people who elected him. They may be trapped by a corrupt system, but they also bought into his promise of honesty in governance. Such values are a powerful impetus for change.

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