Imran Khan, the cricketer who led Pakistan to a glorious World Cup victory over its former colonial ruler, England, a quarter century ago, led his political party to an equally impressive victory in Pakistan’s national elections this week. In a country as corrupt and troubled as Pakistan, a new, charismatic leader is bound to raise hopes; whether Mr. Khan can deliver is a far different question.
Pakistan’s woes are many and grave. Corruption runs deep — the last elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was imprisoned two weeks ago. The national debt is ballooning, the electricity grid is disintegrating and jobs are so scarce that Pakistani workers are compelled to fan out across the Middle East to take whatever work they can find. On top of that, terrorists strike often, relations with the United States are bad and politics are chronically unstable, with a tradition of military meddling.
Mr. Khan’s victory is not free of taint. The powerful military and intelligence services threw their considerable and suspect weight behind him, and rival parties cried fraud. Suicide bombers targeted his supporters several times. Mr. Khan’s Justice Movement, moreover, did not win enough seats in Parliament to form a government alone, so he will need to negotiate a coalition with political opponents.
Still, his party scored big not only in the national Parliament but also in regional races across the country, a rare feat in Pakistani politics, giving Mr. Khan, 65, considerable leverage to pursue his goals. Those he listed in his victory address were a catalog of what urgently needs to be done.
His main call is to reform Pakistan’s woeful governance and put an end to the patronage networks that have facilitated widespread graft — his rallying cries since he abandoned an international athlete’s playboy lifestyle two decades ago and entered politics. Now projecting a devout Muslim image, he pledges to create an Islamic welfare state to raise up the poor.
In foreign affairs, Mr. Khan said he would seek to improve relations with the United States, whose policies in the region he has fiercely criticized. President Trump has cut millions of dollars in foreign aid to Pakistan over charges that Pakistan gave safe haven to Afghan terrorists and “have given us nothing but lies & deceit,” as the president put it in a tweet in January. Mr. Khan also pledged to seek an end to the territorial dispute with India over Kashmir, which has long set the neighbors at loggerheads, and to improve relations with China, Pakistan’s major creditor.
How far Mr. Khan can go in changing Pakistan’s political culture, helping the poor and fixing foreign relations will depend on many factors, including what coalition he cobbles together, how much leeway the military allows him and how he manages a rapidly swelling debt. It will depend, too, on himself: Though indisputably charming and charismatic, he is also known for erratic behavior.
In the end, Mr. Khan offers a chance of change, however remote, for a country in dire need of it. Any degree of success would benefit not only the Pakistanis, but also their neighbors and creditors, and the United States, which, for better or for worse, is tied to Pakistan in its struggle against Islamic terrorism. It would be wise for the Trump administration, as well as for India and China, to do what they can to ease Mr. Khan’s way.