After two successive governments failed to provide economic growth, Imran Khan ran on a “justice” and “change” agenda and gradually built on populist support among youth voters to secure a win in the 2018 elections. Poor economic performance and a growing uniform front of political opposition brought an abrupt end to PTI’s first term. Khan before finishing his first term in office was ousted by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. In two weeks preceding his exit from Premiership, Khan’s populist Islamist rhetoric peaked. Currently Sehbaz Sharif serves as the Prime Minister who is the brother of exiled Nawaz Sharif of the PML(N). Sharifs and their alliance of parties, the PDM, have also not been shy about inciting populist Islamist rhetoric to trigger sentiments for political gains.

Founded in 1947 as the British withdrew from South Asia, Pakistan was created primarily for the Muslim minority of India. It is landlocked on three sides by India, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, while its southern border touches the Arabian Sea. The country is densely populated, and more than half of its rapidly expanding population falls under the age of 35.

The region has shown signs of human settlement dating back as far as the Neolithic era. Over the years, the region has blended Hellenistic, Persian, Gandharan, Vedic, Arab, Central Asian, Turkish, and European influences; it is a largely Muslim country, but its cultural values are diverse.

Queen Victoria of Britain was proclaimed the Empress of India in 1857 after the War of Independence was unsuccessful in reinstating the legitimacy of the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar (Sharma, 2007). During the period of the First World War, anti-colonialism and nationalism dominated the politics of British India. By WWI, local political parties such as the Congress Party, All India Muslim League, and a host of others had formed and were active in seeking self-rule.

The Muslim factions in India felt betrayed when Congress leaders withdrew support from the Khilafat Movement, an effort to urge European powers to leave the Ottoman monarchy intact post-war. This was followed by a series of increased tensions between India’s Hindu and Muslim factions. By the 1940s when World War II broke out, the Muslim League, under the leadership of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, led a populist movement based on religion and nationalism in search of a self-governing territory for the region’s largest minority. The charisma of Jinnah drew thousands of supporters to his rallies, and he was made the first Governor General of the country when it gained independence from the British in 1947 (Hayat, 2011).

To date, Pakistan has witnessed four military dictatorships, three outright military confrontations with India, and an ethnically-driven civil war in 1970 between the Western and Eastern wings that led to the independence of Bangladesh. Today, the country still struggles with its identity: its four provinces and federal territories comprise massively diverse groups of people who have nothing in common apart from a shared Islamic identity.

In addition to social tensions, the country has struggled economically and faces a severe external debt crisis. Its human development indicators are one of the poorest in South Asia, and basic human rights violations are frequent. With such a young population, economic growth is crucial for the country, but its incompetent and corrupt governance, institutional capacity, and inability to sustain growth have led to inflation and a rise in unemployment coupled with a growing trend of Islamization.

The country’s first free general elections took place in 1970, following the end of Ayyub Khan’s military regime. The overwhelming victory of the Eastern Bengali wing led to a power struggle between the two wings that broke out in the form of the 1970 civil war. After a humiliating defeat, populist leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) rose to power. Bhutto assumed power until 1977, leading a semi-dictatorial styled democracy. Unable to deliver his socialist promise of “bread, clothing, and shelter,” he faced growing unrest. As state oppression grew, massive anti-state protests led to political instability, and the country plunged into its third dictatorship.

Populism has always played a central role in Pakistani politics. The daughter of former Prime Minster Bhutto galvanised popular support in the 1988 elections based on an anti-establishment narrative against the former regime. Benazir Bhuttosoon lost her government to Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, as he roused popular support by positioning himself as a right-wing conservative, who did not belong to dynastic politics, opposed to the “elite,” “corrupt,” and “western” Bhutto.

Poor leadership, conflict between the democratic forces and military, and growing popular unrest Pakistan unstable. After four failed governments, General Pervez Musharraf took power until he was forced to resign from office in 2008 after a series of populist protests emerged across the country, triggered by the Lawyers Movement which earned the support of the public and opposition parties.

In the 21st century, Pakistan has witnessed the widespread prevalence of populism. Anti-state narratives have been used by the opposition, ruling governments, and religious factions alike. Amidst increased instances of domestic terrorism in 2007, Benazir Bhutto was murdered during her election campaign. This led her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, to assume power of the PPP, which won the general election of 2008 with 31 percent of the vote. Before her assassination, Bhutto was able to give the PPP populist momentum by addressing issues such as terrorism, income inequality, and Afghan immigration. Her death made her a martyr who, like her father, was “sacrificed for democracy” (The Nation, 2009). The PPP-led government was able to complete its term but failed to deliver its centre-left promise of a better life for average Pakistanis, and domestic and Afghan-Taliban factions increasingly spread terror with suicide bombings across major cities in the country.

The 2013 elections were won by Sharif and his party the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PLM(N)). Returning back from self-exile, Sharif was able to appeal to the people again as a vanguard of democracy, as opposed to the Zardari-led PPP, which was engulfed in corruption scandals. As a centre-right party, PLM(N) promised a “stronger economy” for a “Strong Pakistan” and vowed to make neo-liberal reforms, solve the country’s energy crises, invest in counterterrorism legislation, and to create jobs for the youth by supporting investments and infrastructure projects to trigger long-term growth for small and medium-sized industries. Positioning himself as counter to the “corrupt PPP,” Sharif’s party was able to win 166 (of 342) seats in the National Assembly. Once in the opposition benches the PPP and PML (N) along with other marginal parties formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The alliance and rhetoric as mirrored PTI’s (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf),  populism with narratives of foreign conspiracy theories, Islamist themes and call for anti-corruption.

These elections also ushered the populist PTI, or Pakistan Movement for Justice, into the limelight. PTI finished third, securing 35 seats in the federal government. PTI was formed in 1996 by Pakistan’s beloved former national cricket team captain and philanthropist Imran Khan. Khan had given Pakistan its state-of-the-art cancer hospital, and in 1992, under his leadership, Pakistan won its first and, so far only, Cricket World Cup. Using his public image as the “captain” who achieves the impossible for Pakistan, Khan formed the PTI with a manifesto of expanding welfare, fighting corruption, and ending dynastic politics in Pakistan.

PTI’s early years did not earn the party popularity outside a small faction of upper-middle-class and middle-class circles that felt connected to the Oxford-educated and non-corrupt and “enlightened” politician. After boycotting the 2008 elections on grounds of lack of transparency, PTI launched its 2013 campaign through social media and general rallies. To affirm his stance as pro-democracy, Khan held a US-style intra-party election to ensure his voters a fresh alternative to the “dynastic politics” of PPP and PML(N). He vowed to end corruption and to bring justice to the poor. In 2013, the party joined the opposition in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.

In 2018, PTI was able to amass support while running on a populist platform. Following the election, Khan led an Azadi or Freedom March, dismissing the election results and calling out vote rigging. PTI’s protests were informally synchronized with the Pakistan Awami Tehreek’s (PAT), an Islamic party led by cleric Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, aligning Khan with a far-right Islamic party. Also called the “tsunami march,” it led to the closure of the Capitol for well over two weeks. Police crackdowns in Islamabad dismantled the protestors and led to injuries amongst journalists, women, and children; in Lahore, the Model Town Incident took place, as clashes between PAT workers and the Punjab police lead to deaths of civilians. Following the rally, mass arrests of PTI workers occurred. This earned the Sharif government an undemocratic reputation in the popular media at home (Mulla, 2017).

As opposition leader, Khan’s appeal grew, his social media campaigns portrayed him as a contemporary Jinnah, a “just man” who would dedicate his life to the people of Pakistan. He appealed to the persecuted religious minorities by positioning himself as a supporter of freedom of religion. He was able to mobilize youth voters with the hope of delivering a “Naya Pakistan” or New Pakistan. His welfare-focused promises appealed to poor factions of society. Fiery speeches condemning International Monetary Fund (IMF) borrowing and Western interference earned further popular support, as he said, “I would rather die than go begging to the IMF.” His plans for a greener economy through forestation programs were seen as progressive. And promises to end corruption made him the “captain” the country needed (Paracha, 2020; Findlay and Bokhari 2019; Mulla, 2017).

The 2016 Panama Papers leak revealed a number of offshore accounts linked to Sharif, his family, and prominent establishment figures. This gave further momentum to PTI, which pushed its “Go Nawaz Go!” movement, demanding Sharif’s resignation. In 2018, Sharif was disqualified for life from holding office due to irregularities in his assets (Hashim, 2018; Pakistan Today, 2014).

In 2018, PTI won a majority of 194 seats in the National Assembly. Khan launched his “100 Day Plan,” which promised somewhat magical antidotes for Pakistan’s chronic problems such as poor capacity for generating tax revenue, weeding out corruption, supporting industry and bolstering an economic recovery, and improving public trust in government institutions. However, due to the grand nature of these promises PTI has been unable to fulfil most of them (Hussain, 2019; Jamal, 2018).

After nearly four years in office, Khan was unable to live up to a number of his key campaign promises. Despite promising to return offshore wealth from “corrupt” leaders, nothing substantive has been achieved. He disappointed minorities when he was forced to drop economist Atif Main from his advisory board due to his Ahmadi background amidst pressure from extremist factions. As promises failed, Khan’s focus on Islamist populism increased with ranged from promising Risayat-e-Madina, funding conservative religious ministries, forging pan-Islamist alliances, assuming the role of ‘defending Islam at international platforms, and increasingly turning a blind eye to the plight of religious minorities, women and children being abused at home (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; 2021b; 2021c; Shakil &Yilmaz, 2021).

In a bid to create the Risayat-e-Madina he not only emptied the already strained state coffers but also capitalised on various ontological insecurities of the citizens only to amplify them (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021c). His anti-West and anti-IMF stance was shattered when his government was forced to enter another structural adjustment program with the IMF. Yet, he changed to focus from these issues to the constant ‘threat’ to Islam by the West as he introduced pan-Islamist TV shows from Turkey, promoted creation of such content in Pakistan, introduced religious studies in educational institutes, promoted conspiracies of Western interference in the country’s domestic affairs (Yilmaz, 2021c; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). In addition, Khan gradually yet steadily increased his authoritarian control by using Islamist populism. He used conspiracies as he ‘otherised’ the opposition as “corrupt Western stooges” and civil society as well as critical voices on media outlets and social media were curbed by increasing control and monitoring of the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (Yilmaz et al., 2022, Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021abcd; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Haqqani, 2020; Kamran, 2020; Shams, 2019; Shah, 2019; Chaudhry, 2018).

As PDM neared a victory in a parliamentary vote to dispose Khan from his office, the weeks between March to early April 2022 became mucked with conspiracies. Known as the ‘letter gate’ Khan insisted that the US wanted a regime change in Pakistan and was behind PDM’s parliamentary success. He openly called upon the people to take the streets and stop the alleged conspiracy against nation and Islam (The Times of India, 2022). After illegally dissolving the assembly to stop the nonconfidence monition, Khan was finally driven out of Parliament in early April as the Super Court ruled in favour of restoring the assembly. Khan seems undefeated in his ideology and calls out for fresh elections and his supports to take the streets to oppose a ‘foreign’ intervention. Despite no evidence of the letter millions march in his favour each night and his party’s members have reminded absent from the National Assembly.

Apart from mainstream political contenders religious parties have also become deeply woven into Pakistan’s political fabric. However, the rise of the ultra-right Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) shows a nexus between religious extremism and populism. The party was formally formed in 2015 and is headed by cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who is from the Barelvi school of Islam. TLP first ran in the 2018 elections and secured two seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly. Rizvi’s “anti-establishment” rhetoric has earned him scores of followers from rural and peri-urban voters as well as madrasa schools. The group views the government as “puppets” installed by Western nations, feels Pakistan need to be a “true Islamic state,” and want to curb any form of expression that they deem as “blasphemous” (Javid, 2018).

TLP repeatedly demonstrated its street-power by launching mass protests such as the Faizabad Sittings (2017) and the anti-Ahmadi protest, as well as anti-blasphemy activism and protests against any films they deem anti-Islamic. They also incite hate speech through social media, which led to the murder of a schoolteacher by his student (a TLP follower) on basis of “perceived blasphemy” by the teacher (Rehman, 2019; Barker & Iqbal, 2018). Rizvi has become the mouthpiece of radical factions, specifically anti-establishment Islamist factions. The presence of the party in the general elections and Rizvi’s unchecked use of insulting and dehumanizing language to incite radical sentiments against the state, minorities, democratic forces, and liberal factions is worrying, as TLP has shown it is able to muster dangerously radical populous support. After Rizvi passed away his eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has continued his father’s path (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2022).

Regardless of having its third consecutive, democratically elected government in power, Pakistan is still a fragile democracy. No Prime Mister has ever completed their time in office. Its people have been economically stretched thin, religious-cultural divides run deep, and the slightest incidents can trigger instability. Surveillance of its people, use of security forces to curb dissent, limiting freedom of speech, denying political space for civil society, and enforced disappearances of human rights activists continue in “Naya Pakistan.” It is unclear if Khan’s support will ever dwindle which guarantees counter-populism on part of other parties. Especially, TLP finds itself steadily amassing support using ultra-right rhetoric merged with religious populism. With Sharif in office, it is unclear if early elections will be called or not. However, it is certain that populism has found itself a home in Pakistan where it sows deep divides amongst people, deepens religious intolerance and creates confusion and distrust of state institutions.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

April 14, 2022


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Geographic Location: South Asia

Area: 881,913 sq. km.

Regime: Islamic Republic, Military Tutelage

Population: 220,892,340 (2020 September est.)

Ethnic Groups (2019 est.): Punjabis 50%, Pashtuns 15%, Sindhis 14%, Other 21%

Languages (2017 est.): Punjabi 38.78%, Pashto 18.24%, Sindhi 14.57%, Saraiki 12.19%, Urdu, 7.08%, Balochi 3.02%, Other 6.12%

Religions (2017 est.): Muslim 96.4%, Others 3.6%

GDP (PPP):  $ 1,143.37 (2018)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $4,884.9 (2019)

Socio-political situation: Fragile

Main Populism Factors:

  • Islamism
  • Religious extremism
  • Anti-religious minorities
  • Anti-elite
  • Anti-corruption
  • Anti-West

Regime’s Character: Pseudo Democracy  

Score: 43/100


Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI (Pakistan Movement for Justice)


Leader: Imran Khan

Ideology: Nationalism, anti-austerity, welfarism, anti-elite, anti-corruption, anti-West, progressive Islamism, anti-establishment

Populism: Centre

Position: 156/342 seats in National Assembly

Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, TLP (Here-I-Am Movement Pakistan)


Leader: Khadim Hussain Rizvi

Ideology: Anti-elite, anti-West, extremist Islamism, anti-establishment, anti-religious minorities

Populism: Ultra-right Islamist

Position: 2/168 seats in Sindh Provincial Assembly