Please cite as:
Sithole, Neo & Nguijol, Gabriel Cyrille. (2023). “Mapping Global Populism — Panel 5: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). November 13, 2023. https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0044
This report is based on the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel featured renowned scholars on populism in Pakistan. As a by-product of this fruitful panel the report consists of brief summaries of the speeches delivered by the distinguished panelists.
By Neo Sithole* and Gabriel Cyrille Nguijol
This report summarizes the fifth panel of ECPS’s monthly series, entitled “Mapping Global Populism: Unveiling Many Faces of Populism in Pakistan,” which took place online on September 28, 2023. The panel was jointly organised by the ECPS, The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), and the Department of Politics and International Relations, which featured renowned scholars on populism and authoritarianism in Pakistan, was moderated by Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) and the speakers were Dr Samina Yasmeen (Professor, Head of Department of International Relations, Asian Studies and Politics in University of Western Australia’s School of Social Sciences), Ramsha Jahangir (A media professional and researcher), Dr Fizza Batool (Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at SZABIST University, Karachi, Pakistan), Dr Raja M. Ali Saleem (Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan) and Dr Afiya Shehrbano Zia (Pakistani feminist researcher on gender and social development).
In starting the panel our moderator for this session Dr Susan de Groot Heupner (Associate Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation in Melbourne, Australia) provided us with a brief introduction where it was articulated that Pakistan has been considered one of the four nations of the forerunners of the mainstreaming of populism in Asia. As such, Pakistan holds particular importance in giving focus to populism in non-Western regions considering the domination of populist scholarship in European, American, and North American scopes of populism that largely exclude other aspects of populism found in populism elsewhere.
Dr. Samina Yasmeen: “Imran Khan’s Populist Narratives”
The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Samina Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order.
In her presentation, Dr. Samina Yasmeen delved into the populist models of Imran Khan, drawing parallels between his popularity rooted in military activism (pre-2018) and other populist figures worldwide who employ militant narratives. However, she emphasized the inherent limitations of this model.
Dr. Yasmeen initiated her talk by outlining the dynamic between ‘master narrators,’ responsible for crafting populist narratives, and ‘informal narrators,’ individuals connecting to and disseminating these narratives. Imran Khan’s narrative, as identified by Dr. Yasmeen, portrays Pakistan’s current state as stagnant, necessitating a transition to its ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this ‘ideal state’ is articulated with strong Islamic undertones, asserting that Pakistan’s true potential lies in embracing its Muslim identity.
This narrative underscores the existence of obstacles hindering the realization of the ‘ideal state,’ primarily corrupt political elites are portrayed as the archetypal antagonists in populist rhetoric: Corrupt political elites who had deprived ‘the people’ of the right to a comfortable life and as hinderances of reaching to the ‘ideal state.’ Imran Khan intertwines this elite corruption with the notion of a Western conspiracy, collaborating with local leaders who oppose Khan’s Islamist views and defend a more liberal Pakistan. The judiciary becomes part of this group when Pakistan Supreme Court ruled against Imran Khan’s attempt to dissolve parliament.
Another dimension of Khan’s populist narrative, according to Dr. Yasmeen, is the elevation of the military, suggesting a collaborative effort between the civilian and military sectors to achieve the ‘ideal state.’ Notably, this narrative predates Khan’s falling out with the military, which had allegedly assisted in his 2018 election victory.
Dr. Yasmeen highlighted Khan’s strategic language use, combining Western liberal ideas for societal elites and Islamic principles, phrases, and metaphors for the broader population. This linguistic approach, coupled with Khan’s utilization of social media and mass rallies, significantly bolstered his popularity.
The consequences of Khan’s narratives, as outlined by Dr. Yasmeen, include societal divisions, contributing to reduced social cohesion in Pakistan. The exclusive nature of his populist rhetoric led to berating and discrediting those with differing opinions, fostering closed-mindedness. This division ultimately led to Khan’s loss of power through a vote of no-confidence in 2022, revitalizing the role of military and judiciary in maintaining peace, law and order. Despite differing interpretations, Imran Khan’s fiery speeches, mixing colloquial and modern ideas, played a significant part in shaping Pakistan’s current environment.
In conclusion, Dr. Yasmeen argued that while Khan’s narratives engaged the youth, they also sowed seeds of division in the country. Whereas the current environment demands a more united approach to address Pakistan’s challenges, emphasizing the need to move beyond divisive narratives. His narratives grabbed attention but led to division, which the current environment cannot afford.
Ramsha Jahangir: “Media and Populism in Pakistan”
Journaslist Ramsha Jahangir’s findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous “others.” Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.
In this second panel presentation, Ramsha Jahangir offered a journalistic perspective on populism in Pakistan, drawing from a 2022 study analyzing 1,035 English-language tweets by Imran Khan between 2018 and 2022. The study aimed to understand Khan’s communicative style on Twitter and identify populist characteristics within his tweets.
Jahangir utilized three indicators for assessing populism: references to the people, positioning, and exclusion of dangerous others. The findings revealed that Imran Khan’s Twitter communication during his prime ministership exhibited softer populism compared to his typical political rhetoric. The focus was primarily on referencing the people, aligning with populist discourse, with less emphasis on the exclusion of dangerous others. Notably, Khan emphasized creating a national identity linked to a religious group, addressing people as ‘Pakistanis’ and frequently speaking on behalf of Muslims and Kashmiris, framing national identity within a civilizational struggle context led by nationalism and religious belonging.
Examining Imran Khan’s communication style while he was Prime Minister, the study identified an engaging and intimate approach, characteristic of populist personalities. Khan’s tweets showcased his endorsement of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) officials, engagement with party members, updates on government policies, promoting his sentiments and opinions with his followers. He actively promoted youth empowerment, offering personal recommendations including encouraging them to read specific books, watch shows or make reference to other activists and showcasing his informal online engagement rooted in his background as a former cricketer.
In summary, Ramsha Jahangir highlighted that the study’s findings aligned with literature on personality politics and populism due to findings which show that Khan’s style was more informal and conversational even when promoting PTI. However, she emphasized the uncertainty of whether Khan personally posted these tweets, acknowledging the involvement of social media teams and raising questions about the results’ validity.
Before concluding, Jahangir explored the impact of Khan’s communication style on social media‘s political landscape in Pakistan. Post-PTI’s downfall, social media politics intensified and became more divisive. PTI’s success in using digital media for political communication by running coordinated campaigns against opponents. This situation has raised concerns about media pluralism and the safety of journalists, as critical speech has become less tolerated. PTI’s success prompted other parties to become more active on social media, though their campaigns have not matched PTI’s sophistication and impact. This extensive use of social media has both positive and negative implications, creating space for various forms of communication but also posing challenges in controlling misinformation due to the openness of social media platforms and regulatory difficulties.
Dr. Fizza Batool: “The Land of Pure: Islamic Populism in Pakistan’s Identity Project and the Rise of Radical Islam”
Dr. Fizza Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.
This third presentation redirects the discussion from narrative building to the manipulation of Islam in Pakistan’s populism. Dr. Fizza Batool initiates the presentation by framing populism as a discursive phenomenon, examining how politics is communicated. She emphasizes viewing populism as a phenomenon rather than a tool for defining populist parties or leaders, referencing Laclau’s concept of ‘Empty Signifying’ and its application by populists.
Dr. Batool explores how populists define the nation as a framed concept, distinguishing ‘the people‘ as a population separate from others while nationalists define what the nation is. Populists often use ‘the people‘ ambiguously, blending meanings without clarification. In this context, Dr. Batool focuses on ethnos when discussing ‘the people,’ specifically related to nationalist discourses. While nationalist and populist discourses overlap, they differ in defining the nation as a concept.
Addressing Islamic populism in Pakistan, Dr. Batool delves into the intricate relationship between Pakistan and Islam. The country’s name, ‘Pakistan’ (‘the land of the pure’), reflects a strong connection to religiosity, with the creation of separate Muslim states linked to the original vision which resulting in the use of the term ‘Muslim’ as a criterion for differentiation. The inherent meaning of being a good Pakistani or a pure Pakistani aligns with being a good Muslim, creating a link between Pakistan and Islam. Dr. Batool explores how radical religious movements and parties justify their goals in line with their vision of a ‘pure’ Pakistan, contributing to the moralism and antagonism ingrained in the national identity and this narrative continued to pit Muslims against Hindus.
Using examples such as the Kashmir movement, Dr. Batool illustrates populist elements in the discourse that emphasize Muslims’ differences from Hindus. This populist narrative permeates Pakistan’s political history, fostering ambiguity and moralism in its identity.
Dr. Batool contends that ‘the people‘ has become an empty signifier, with political parties offering their definitions of a ‘pure Pakistani’ based on their beliefs. This ambiguity extends to elected and non-elected regimes contributing to various interpretations by different political actors, including religious radicals and moderate liberals. Religious radical movements like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) see themselves as purifiers of Pakistan, but their interpretations of ‘purity’ differ. Even moderate or liberal political actors such as the People‘s Party suggest a form of Islam based on their beliefs.
In conclusion, Dr. Batool argues that addressing the challenge of deeply embedded populism in the country’s name requires a potential re-conceptualization of Pakistan’s identity. Shifting from religious nationalism to a more inclusive concept of a ‘nation’ could offer a path forward, embracing pluralism and recognizing the existence of multiple nations globally while respecting their political rights. In essence, redefining what it means to be a Pakistani could be the path forward.
Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem: “Military and Populism in Pakistan”
Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a “messy divorce” between Khan and the military.
The fourth presentation in our panel delves into the global role of the military and populism within a historical context. Dr. Raja M. Ali Saleem explores the intertwined history of populism and the military in Pakistan, focusing particularly on Imran Khan and his association with populism. Dr. Saleem identifies two key connections between the military and populism: First, military generals or coup leaders directly adopting populist actions, often stemming from anti-colonial struggles or socialist movements where the generals were also decolonial leaders and leaders of the left-wing. Second, the military indirectly supporting or opposing populism, playing a role in the modernization of post-colonial societies as a part of the middle class in search of education, lifestyle upgrading and interaction with international militaries.
Dr. Saleem’s presentation highlights a historical period (1930s to 1960s) when military leaders embraced populism to bolster their governments and vilify adversaries. Notable figures include Juan Perón of Argentina, Lázaro Cárdenas of Mexico, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, and Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, often leaning toward left-wing populism. There were fewer instances of right-wing populism, such as the regime of Konstantinos Karamanlis in Greece. The role of the military in the newly independent countries was often that of a modernizing force. They aimed to revolutionize and develop their nations. However, by the 1970s, the military in post-colonial countries transitioned into a status quo force, prioritizing rule and stability over revolutionary change.
In the case of Pakistan, populism initially emerged in the eastern part (later Bangladesh) of the country as opposition to the military, with leaders like Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. West Pakistan witnessed its first populist leader in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s saw confrontations between populist leaders from the eastern wing and the Pakistan military. The late 1970s marked a shift, with the military supporting right-wing populist leaders like those from the Jamaat-e-Islami, disrupting politics and challenging democratic governments.
By the 1990s, the military adopted tactics of coercion and influence to align popular electables with their preferred political parties. They aimed to win support for their preferred parties. The entry of Imran Khan brought about a significant shift, portraying him as the savior of Pakistan and heralding a ‘New Pakistan.” That led to a marked shift in Pakistan’s political landscape. Part of this shift can be attributed to the heavy involvement of the military in media and social media, creating narratives to shape public perception which saw Pakistan’s military being praised for its effective use of media in the so-called fifth-generation warfare.
Dr. Saleem unravels the complexities in the relationship between Imran Khan and the military, revealing initial support followed by emerging differences. The military, initially seen as supportive, later took an anti-populist stance, leading to increased harassment, abductions, and legal cases against PTI party leaders. The military allowed other political parties to take action against Imran Khan. This turbulent turn of events resulted in what Dr. Saleem terms a "messy divorce" between Khan and the military.
In conclusion, Dr. Saleem emphasizes the challenges of using populist leaders as tools for the military. Populists, due to their fluid nature, are difficult to fully control, retaining followers and manipulating perceptions to their advantage. The unprecedented criticism faced by the military in response to Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric has left it divided for the first time in Pakistan’s history. This shift complicates the military’s support for any future populist leader, as populists are less likely to become subservient to a powerful establishment, given the charismatic nature of populism, as evidenced by the disruption caused by Donald Trump in the US Republican Party.
Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia: “I Am Democracy’: The Appeal of Imran Khan’s Populism for Pakistani Women”
Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia emphasizes that Imran Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Imran Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.
In the last presentation of the panel, Dr. Afiya Shehrbano Zia explores the intricate connections between Imran Khan’s populist rhetoric and its resonance among Pakistani women. The session begins with visual context-setting through short videos, enhancing the audience’s understanding (refer to the recorded panel for visual references). Dr. Zia’s content unfolds across three overarching themes: Khan’s appeal to women, Victimhood and Competitive Sovereign Subject, and Political Magical Realism.
The first theme revolves around Khan’s appeal to women, grounded in notions of Muslim morality and piety. Dr. Zia emphasizes that Khan’s promises of welfare and freedom are not aimed at liberating women from patriarchy but rather address a broader form of subjugation linked to historical colonial baggage and the concept of ‘ghulami’ or slavery. Khan’s pledges are not directed towards achieving temporal emancipation or promoting feminist equality. His rhetoric, framed within a heavenly context, weaves together politics and religion, promoting a distinctive blend.
The second theme explores victimhood and the concept of the competitive sovereign subject in Khan’s narratives. His vision of the ideal state of Medina taps into Pakistani Muslims’ nostalgia for the egalitarian era of Islam, which is perceived as an equal rights-based and democratic that was later corrupted by patriarchal misinterpretations, colonialism, and modernity. His rhetoric positions women as symbols preserving and actively reproducing the nation. Khan’s warnings against feminism and criticism of culturally alien movements, such as women’s marches, contribute to the narrative of women safeguarding Islamic culture. In this context, Khan promises to rescue the post-colonial subject from a multitude of influences, including what he terms ‘infidels,’ the pernicious influence of Bollywood culture, and even the lurking designs of change propagated by the US. Women’s bodies and gender roles must be controlled and protected from various forms of occupation, including the infiltration of Western ideas, Western dress codes, and aspirations. Khan’s warnings against feminism and his criticism of culturally alien movements like women’s marches all form part of this narrative. All of these push the idea that women are the bastions of Islamic culture.
The third theme, Political Magical Realism, encompasses elements like myth-making, iconic representations, rumors, references to black magic, and Khan’s own sex appeal. These elements shape Khan’s appeal and image, offering unique opportunities to strategize for strengthening civilian democracy over military hegemony, improving gender relations, and promoting feminist ideologies.
Beyond these themes, Dr. Zia explores women’s expressions of despair and intense emotional responses in the videos, highlighting their impact when presented in the public domain and on social media. Pious female sentimentality, often described as ‘affect’ and ‘agency,’ has historically played a pivotal role in various facets of Pakistani society. The concept of “piety populism,” a performative mourning that acquires distinct value and impact, is introduced. Dr. Zia delves into the historical role of female agency and affect which have played a critical role in military recruitment and in the narrative of the sacrifice of sons to continue to protect mothers through Jihad efforts and terrorism.
This encompasses the regular enlistment of individuals into the Pakistani military services, as extensively detailed in the scholarly work of researchers like Maria Rashid. Notably intriguing is the utilization of mothers’ agency for making sacrifices in support of jihad, a phenomenon elucidated by scholars such as Samina Yasmeen. The perceived dignity of women as active contributors to their own and their community’s advancement has emerged as a foundational rationale for backing radical groups. For instance, in 2005, women in Swat, Pakistan, rallied behind Taliban commander Fazlullah, actively financing his campaign for Sharia law. This engagement provided them with a sense of political autonomy by challenging local patriarchal norms. A parallel scenario unfolded in 2007 when radical women from the Jamia Hafsa madrasa in Islamabad engaged in moral crusades against perceived immorality in the capital, showcasing their continued exercise of pious agency and embodied virtue.
Khan’s appeal targets politically disenfranchised women, especially those from urban middle-class backgrounds, who publicly perform feminist and revolutionary poetry for their conservative male leader. Dr. Zia points out that Khan has mobilized more women into political and public spaces compared to many other leaders. This expansion and legitimization of women’s freedom of expression and political agency have distinct implications, especially as seen in the post-Imran Khan era, where his removal from the prime minister’s office triggered public debates, including those within veteran military families.
The presentation also addresses cognitive dissonance within Khan’s woman support base, where conservative positions are defended despite their detriment to women’s wellbeing. The defense often comes from both men and women, arguing that Khan’s views are taken out of context, showcasing the success of Khan’s appeal to conservative values.
In summary, the three highlighted themes provide profound insights into Imran Khan’s populism, revealing a co-opting of liberal ideals and elite elements that effectively shift towards the right. This shift minimizes the gap between the right and left in Pakistan’s political landscape.
(*) Neo Sithole is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).