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Imran Khan is sworn in as prime minister, marking a new era in Pakistan

Men in Karachi watch Saturday as cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan. (Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

KABUL — Rising to take the oath as Pakistan’s 22nd prime minister, Imran Khan put to rest one topic of frenzied public speculation about Saturday’s ceremony in Islamabad: The legendary cricket star and champion of the poor was clad in a formal black tunic, as tradition dictated, not a colorful sports uniform or humble white cotton pajama.

But much larger and more difficult choices loom. The 65-year-old Khan — a onetime celebrity playboy and self-styled political maverick — campaigned on idealistic promises to build a “new Pakistan,” in which the state would end corruption and provide jobs and justice for the poor in the Muslim-majority country of 207 million. Now, though, he must also tackle fast-rising foreign debt and other thorny economic problems.

Khan, overcome with emotion, stumbled over a few words as he swore to “bear true faith and allegiance to Pakistan.” His oath was brief but historic, completing the country’s second-ever peaceful handover of power after Khan’s pro-reform party swept last month’s parliamentary elections with 176 seats.

The ceremony, packed with dignitaries in suits, included several more unusual guests. Khan’s new wife, Bushra Maneka, who had not been seen in public since their wedding in February, was covered in a head-to-toe veil. Navjot Singh Sidhu, a retired cricket star and friend of Khan’s from India, Pakistan’s nuclear-armed rival neighbor, stood out in a purple turban.

“Imran Khan has emerged as a hope for us all,” Sidhu told a crowded news conference in Islamabad after the inaugural ceremony, where he made instant news by chatting warmly with Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. Sidhu said he had come to Pakistan with “a message of love and friendship . . . for everyone, not just cricketers.” 

But even with a solid victory behind Khan — both nationwide and in Punjab province, the home base of the long-dominant Pakistan Muslim League — Pakistan’s new leader faces continued protests by electoral rivals that the July 25 polls were rigged and charges that the powerful military establishment intervened to help his party win seats. Khan and military officials have denied the allegations.

The race was also marred by accusations of election fraud and the spectacle of former premier Nawaz Sharif being sent to prison for financial crimes.

Observers say Khan also faces an array of difficult decisions in economic and financial policy, some of which may contradict his popular campaign vows to create an “Islamic welfare state.” His pledge to invest in health and education for the poor while cracking down on financial misdeeds and tax evasion by the rich won him both passionate fans and powerful foes. 

Most urgent is Pakistan’s foreign debt and balance-of-payments crisis. The national currency has plunged into free fall as debt repayment obligations to China, the country’s major investor and development partner, have skyrocketed. The new government may be soon forced to seek another bailout from the International Monetary Fund, a move Khan has vociferously opposed.

“Imran Khan said he would prefer to commit suicide than to take loans, and he talked about breaking the begging bowl,” said Mustafa Khokhar, a senator from the Pakistan People’s Party. He said Khan had promised to provide “10 million jobs to youths and 5 million houses for people” but that “our ailing economy is the most serious issue confronting the new government. The days of making tall promises is over. They have to act now and steer the country out of this grave crisis.”

Khan and his team also inherit other costly problems, including Pakistan’s unsustainable rate of population growth, scarcity of water and chronic electricity shortages. They must also grapple with the lingering presence of Islamist militant groups that operate against Afghanistan, which has isolated Pakistan internationally and triggered U.S. military aid cuts. Khan has expressed contradictory views on Afghanistan and U.S. policy there. 

In most of his recent statements, including one after Friday’s pro forma vote in parliament that officially made him prime minister, Khan has remained focused on his personal mantra and most popular cause — ferreting out corruption in high places and ending the feudal-minded, dynastic monopoly on politics that has kept concentrated power and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite for decades.

“The first thing we have to do is bring strict accountability. Those people who have looted the country, I promise they will be brought to justice,” he told the National Assembly. He said he had fought for 22 years to bring change to Pakistan and carry out the democratic vision of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who founded the nation in 1947. “No military dictator nurtured me. I am here through my own struggle,” he said.

Such rhetoric resonated with much of the nation, and it won Khan — whose previous moment in the limelight was 26 years ago, when he captained the Pakistan cricket team that won the World Cup — the chance to make history again. Whether he will succeed, or succumb to the pressures and blandishments that have defeated other would-be Pakistani reformists, is something on which few seasoned observers are willing to bet. 

“It was the ordinary voter that turned the leaf on elective feudalism. Their choice is now reflected in the man who is to lead the nation for the next five years,” the Express Tribune newspaper said in an editorial Saturday. But it described Khan as an “unknown quantity” who “has yet to prove himself as a leader of Pakistan in all its diversity. We can do no more than offer congratulations . . . and the hope that Imran Khan can bring unity and harmony into the lives of all of us.”

Hussain reported from Islamabad.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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