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. Khan and his PTI have yet to fulfill his promises and two years into his term, he is fast losing the populist charm and charisma that brought him to office. The Nawaz Sharif led PML(N) has also not been shy about inciting populist rhetoric to trigger anti-state sentiments for political gains. With poverty, illiteracy, inequality, and rampant social injustice, radicalism has found a strong foothold in the country, and ultra-right populist, religious parties have long been involved in Pakistani politics. TLP is the newest hardline contender in a long line of Islamist politics.
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 Minister 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, the 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 the 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 center-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 center-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 a counter to the “corrupt PPP”, Sharif’s party was able to win 166 (of 342) seats in the National Assembly.
These elections also ushered the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (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 U.S.-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 the 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 a poor capacity for generating tax revenue, weeding out corruption, supporting the 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 fulfill most of them (Hussain, 2019; Jamal, 2018).
After two years in office, it is clear that Khan has not been able 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. The common person increasingly feels disillusioned by hopes of seeing their dreams of Risayat-e-Madina being actualized, as empty coffers have limited opportunities for welfare reform. His anti-West and anti-IMF stance was shattered when his government was forced to enter another structural adjustment program with the IMF. For the more liberal factions, PTI has disappointed by increasing the role of religious teaching in schools under the Single National Curriculum and curbing freedom of media outlets and social media via the Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority (Haqqani, 2020; Kamran, 2020; Shams, 2019; Shah, 2019; Chaudhry, 2018).
Religion has become deeply woven into Pakistan’s political fabric, and Islamic political parties have long been a part of the democratic spectrum. 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 wants 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 are worrying, as TLP has shown it is able to muster dangerously radical populous support.
Regardless of having its third consecutive, democratically-elected government in power, Pakistan is a fragile democracy. 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.” A COVID-19 ravaged economy is likely to lead to further discontent among Pakistanis, and parties such as TLP can potentially widen their populist base under such circumstances, threatening Pakistan’s fragile democracy.
By Ihsan Yilmaz
October 17, 2020.
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