KABUL, Afghanistan — 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 one-time celebrity playboy and self-styled political maverick – campaigned on idealistic promises to build a “new Pakistan,” where 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 a fast-rising foreign debt and other thorny economic problems.

Imran Khan

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, 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.

Khan and his team also inherit other costly problems, including Pakistan’s unsustainable rate of population growth, scarcity of water and chronic electricity shortages.


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