For years, there have been rumours suggesting that Imran Khan once wished to become Prime Minister under General Pervez Musharraf. While the dictator reportedly decided not to fulfill this wish given Khan’s limited parliamentary influence at the time (in the early 2000s the PTI barely registered as an electoral force), and while this allegedly led to the latter’s falling out with the former, these rumours, if true, reveal the uncomfortable possibility that, for the very beginning, Imran Khan has not been particularly concerned about how he acquires power. That the ends might justify the means for Khan was abundantly evident during the 2018 election campaign when, despite his professed commitment to change, he welcomed traditional political elites – so-called ‘electables’ defecting from other parties – into the PTI with open arms. The reasoning behind this decision was simple; if the PTI desired to win the national elections, electables were an important means through which to do so even if it meant compromising, in the short-run, on the party’s vows to reform Pakistan’s political system. Furthermore, many within the PTI, and possibly Imran Khan himself, presumably felt that once victory was secured, the new Prime Minister and his supporters would be able to reign in the worst tendencies of their political allies, bringing about change from the top.

The problems with this strategy should now be apparent for all to see. Whatever Imran Khan’s motivations and calculations may have been, and regardless of how opportunistic or sincere he might have been with regards to the compromises he made in his pursuit of power, it has become clear that the PTI government is hardly the vehicle of change it promised to be. The Prime Minister’s decision to reshuffle his cabinet and replace erstwhile PTI loyalists and leaders with relics of the last PPP government has rightly triggered considerable backlash and even mockery, with critics and supporters alike raising the obvious point that a Prime Minister who made a career out of lambasting his political opponents and their conduct in office has now taken to rewarding, and relying upon, ministers and politicians who were once an integral part of the system Imran Khan sought to transform, and who once joined their former leaders in relentlessly attacking the PTI and its agenda.

In and of itself, a cabinet reshuffle is not necessarily a serious issue. Ministers who are unable to perform their duties can and should be sacked as and when necessary, and cabinet appointments have always remained one of the principal mechanisms through which party leaders reward their supporters. As such, in a context where the economy increasingly appears to be in crisis, Imran Khan’s decision to replace his finance minister is not entirely devoid of logic, nor is the decision to take this opportunity to promote or demote other party leaders. What is notable, however, is the nature of those chosen to replace PTI stalwarts in the cabinet, and the fact that many of the new cabinet appointments are not ministers at all but, rather, advisors to the Prime Minister.

There are several issues with Imran Khan’s decision to induct former PPP ministers and other defectors into his cabinet at this stage. For one, as stated above, it hardly does the PTI’s reputation any good to be seen as simply mimicking the actions of the very predecessors it campaigned against for the better part of a decade. If the government’s objective is to reform the system, it is difficult to see how it will succeed in doing so if it continues to reward and accommodate the set of politicians arguably responsible for the system’s dysfunction. Second, there is good reason to believe that many of the individuals who defected to the PTI did so at the urging of the establishment, with this constituting one of the main pillars of the case for saying the 2018 elections were rigged in Imran Khan’s favour. As such, the decision to appoint such elements to powerful cabinet positions suggests the continuing influence of the establishment behind the scenes. This notion is given further credence by the appointment of a new Interior Minister known for his close links to the military.

Third, both the ministries of finance and information have now been placed in the hands of unelected advisors who have simply been appointed by the Prime Minister. While there is some precedent for this, the Prime Minister’s decision to reply on such advisors, rather than elected members of parliament from his own party, smacks of a desire to engage in more centralized decision-making. For the past few weeks, rumours of an impending cabinet reshuffle have been accompanied by calls for the implementation of a presidential form of technocratic government in Pakistan and while it is unlikely that the government would have the support in parliament necessary to bring about such a fundamental institutional change, replacing elected minister with unelected advisors could be interpreted as an attempt to enhance the executive powers of the Prime Minister, an incremental step towards de facto presidentialism.

This should be a cause for concern. Putting aside issues related to the competence, backgrounds, and motivations of the PTI’s new cabinet members, and even the allegations that this reshuffle is part of some establishment plot, anyone with even a passing familiarity with Pakistan’s political history should recognize the dangers of unchecked executive power and ‘technocratic’ government. While these ideas might sound good, they have repeatedly failed to deliver in Pakistan, with one reason for this simply being that they have, in the past, been able to deliver governance outcomes in line with the desires and aspirations of the electorate. Instead, they have remained hostage to their own interests and those of their patrons, privileging a narrow view of national interest over a more inclusive and participatory vision of progress. Imran Khan has already betrayed what little radical promise he and his party once held; he now runs the danger of making things worse with his continued embrace of opportunistic politics and uncritical support for the fantasy of untrammeled executive power.