Elections in Pakistan: A Populist Moment?

by Ayyaz Mallick

8 August 2018

On 25 July 2018, Pakistan held a general election in which the Pakistan Movement for Justice Party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI) – led by celebrity-cricketer Imran Khan – emerged as the largest party in parliament. For a country marred by long bouts of military rule, the continuity of (at least formal) democracy might be taken as good news. However, the conditions leading up to the elections, the prevailing balance of forces in the country and the populist coalition forged by Khan and his party, may not bode well for the prospects of a substantive democracy centred on Pakistan’s working masses.

Leading up to the Elections

The lead-up to these general elections has been marred by accusations that the military-dominated establishment of Pakistan engaged in “pre-poll rigging” in favour of the PTI, with the aim of dislodging the incumbent Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League faction (PML-N). Nawaz himself was the product of military engineering of Pakistani politics during the US-sponsored regime of General Zia and the petro-dollar sponsored Afghan war in the 1980s. Throughout the 1990s, Sharif endured an uneven relationship with the security establishment until things came to a head in his ouster through General Musharraf’s coup in 1999. Having fashioned himself as a pro-“development” leader, Sharif secured a majority in the 2013 elections and became Prime Minister.

Sharif’s majority in parliament was, however, undercut by street agitation led by Khan and other religio-political forces, egged on by a military establishment uncomfortable with Sharif’s bid to forge closer ties with India and increase control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policy. Sharif also sought to bring former military dictator General Musharraf to an unprecedented trial in court. Tensions over foreign and security policy, the fate of former coup-maker Musharraf, and over shares/control of China’s highly touted Belt and Road Project’s Pakistan leg (called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC) boiled over in a protracted war of position between the civilian elite and military establishment.

Revelations in the Panama Papers of the Sharif family’s assets outside Pakistan triggered a series of court investigations and media trials, resulting in Nawaz Sharif’s legal disqualification and ouster from premier-ship in 2017. A hyper-active judiciary (the product of Pakistan’s last round of anti-dictatorship struggle in 2007-8), and an assertive military establishment found common cause in a highly selective “accountability” drive which, of course, excluded well-fed bureaucrats, judges and generals. This was combined with increasing encroachment of the military establishment in different spheres of governance and policy-making.

With the establishment’s deteriorating relationship with Trump’s strongman regime in Washington, accompanied by increased closeness to China, even a rhetorical commitment to procedural democracy and basic civil liberties has been abandoned at the altar of defending “national security”. Military operations in peripheral parts of Pakistan – such as Balochistan province and the Federally Administered “Tribal” Areas – over the past decade has already resulted in a situation resembling martial-law in these areas. Recently, the sphere of military operations was increased to Pakistan’s financial metropolis, Karachi, ostensibly to “improve law and order” and clear the ground for in-coming Chinese capital, while military courts were instituted to bypass the slothful criminal justice system and deal with “die-hard terrorists”. When the high-handedness of the security establishment came under criticism by popular, non-violent movements such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), the program of press censorship and extra-judicial abductions of the military’s critics was expanded from the peripheral to the “core” areas of the country.

It is in this atmosphere of intimidation, censorship and “accountability”, that the country approached the July 25 elections. The incumbent N-league was brazenly suppressed, its leader Nawaz Sharif and his daughter jailed over corruption charges, while many leaders were reportedly forced to leave the party and/or join Khan’s PTI. The election process itself was marred by several irregularities: more than 350,000 army personnel were deployed inside and outside polling stations, the vote-counting system suffered “technical difficulties” shortly after the end of polling, while the number of “rejected” votes was found to be greater than the winning margin in at least 35 constituencies. Ultimately, the PTI emerged as the largest party in parliament, seeming to be in position to elect Khan as Prime Minister, albeit with the help of some independents and smaller parties.

PTI: Crisis and Populism

Khan and the PTI are products of the changing balance of class forces in Pakistan. A celebrated former cricket captain and philanthropist, Khan started his political career as an anti-corruption crusader in 1996. His politics took off in the late 2000s as a burgeoning middle class found in Khan a vehicle for their technocratic-meritocratic values and aspirations. This was accompanied, in the context of the so-called War on Terror, by an increasing exhaustion of the complex of exclusivist Islam and praetorianism which had provided ideological grist to the ruling bloc since the late 1970s.

The PTI represented a populist intervention in this crisis-ridden conjuncture: an economic program based on (nebulously defined) “anti-corruption” and decreasing leakage, appeals to an “Islamic” welfare state, and invocations of a “moderate” and urbane Islam best embodied in the popular perception and personality of Khan himself. The private media, professional associations, hyperactive internet forums, and charity initiatives (exemplified by Khan’s own free cancer hospital and foundation) became key apparatuses in the terrain of civil society, whereby the new middle class attempted to forge an “ethical-political” hegemony. In the absence of organised bases of working class power (such as labour and student unions), such institutional apparatuses have become crucial avenues for shaping and influencing the political landscape.

However, while the fast growing, professional middle class (estimated to be upwards of 50 million out of a population of 220 million) formed the hegemonic core of the PTI, the structuring of the political terrain worked against its ascension to the corridors of state and executive power. Concentrated overwhelmingly in the urban core of the country, the middle-class base of the PTI was constantly frustrated in its attempts to attain power in constituency-based parliamentary politics.

Such a re-structuring and spatial expansion of the PTI-project in the 2018 elections was attained through three crucial openings. Firstly, the influx of new – and especially young – voters on electoral rolls was almost completely absorbed by the PTI. While the two other major parties, PML-N and PPP, maintained their vote numbers from the 2013 election, the increase in the number of total votes cast for PTI (about 9.2m) exceeded the increase in number of votes cast in aggregate (about 7.6m). Second, the clash between the military-judicial establishment and the PML-N widened splits in the ruling elite, while subsequent terrain-engineering through suppression of rivals favoured the PTI’s election campaign. Third, and crucially, the PTI’s opening up to Pakistan’s landed and big capital elite, already underway since 2012, was vastly accelerated. Political brokers in rural and peri-urban constituencies – ever sensitive to the cajolements and directions of the establishmentarian breeze – pledged allegiance to Khan’s “anti-corruption” platform and boosted the spatial-social spread of PTI’s electorate. Thus, the PTI and Khan headed into elections with a terrain clearer than ever before, and with a set of socio-spatial alliances that could finally translate its hegemony from the virtual spaces of the Internet to the corridors of parliamentary power.

Future Prospects: Democracy and Authoritarianism

It is also within these openings for the PTI that the abject failures of Pakistan’s mainstream, incumbent parties can be glimpsed. Dominated by big capital, landed elites and political entrepreneurs, these parties have provided neither a voice to Pakistan’s burgeoning youth and middle class, nor an alternative model of development and redistribution beyond the crumbs falling from patronage networks. The parties’ leaderships and platforms have scarce representation/input from grassroots workers. “Development” is reduced to glitzy and high profile “mega-projects” and “model projects”, which grease the palms of brokers and contractors around party leaderships, while having little to no bearing on wider issues of social and geographic inequality. As such, the attempts of mainstream parties to appeal to the nation’s common interests and reduce the military’s influence in key spheres of policy-making are regularly brought to heel mainstream parties’ by their lack of popular support and subsequent susceptibility to populist upsurges (such as that of the PTI’s).

It is exactly here, in both their desire to cut down on praetorian machinations and their structural inability to provide enough concessions to the masses, that all threats of “rejecting” elections and mass agitation comes to naught. Further, these parties remain prey to more ambitious and ruthless contenders for power who can present themselves as acceptable to the ever-ready military establishment. All their talk of “democracy” and “civilian supremacy” will come to naught until political parties, their modus operandi, and their wider social-economic platforms are re-structured into truly pro-people projects for all of Pakistan’s different nationalities.

Moreover, it is in the (seemingly) oppositional, populist coalition forged by Khan that PTI’s politics is likely to find its Achilles Heel. For its fulfilment of promises of an Islamic “welfare” state, Khan will have to tax big business, which is amply represented in his party’s inner circles. For its promise of building thousands of homes for the lower middle class and the poor, Khan will have to contend with Pakistan’s highly influential real estate mafia (including the military and party luminaries). For the promise of instituting an egalitarian educational system, he will have to contend with organised interests around privatisation of education (which, paradoxically, Khan’s middle class base itself is a product of). For his promise of having equitable and friendly relations with neighbouring countries, he must confront the myopic and isolationist calculations of Pakistan’s military establishment. Add to that the pressures of increasing oil prices, leading to rising import bills, a declining export and manufacturing base, decreasing remittances, and the program of cost-cutting and privatisation which is sure to be part of a looming IMF bailout.

It is for the fulfilment of these promises that a vast, emerging and young section of Pakistan’s population has pinned its hopes on the PTI and Imran Khan. The danger, of course, remains that in trying and failing to tie together so many varied interests and promises, Khan and his party may resort to the campaign trail rhetoric of “enemies” and “traitors” to paper over contradictions and shore up the party’s support base. Keeping in mind the shifting imperial mooring of the Pakistani state, the general air of political suppression in the lead-up to elections, Khan’s history of exclusivist rhetoric and his well-publicised personality traits of aloofness and narcissism, Pakistan’s descent into further authoritarianism cannot be ruled out.

For the short-term though, Khan’s political capital and support among increasing and influential sections of the state and society will see him through. What happens to Khan and Pakistan’s latest populist moment in the long-term is, of course, a matter of political practice and down to the mode of incorporation of middle and lower classes in the country’s changing ruling bloc. For those who aim to rebuild the devastated bases of working class power in Pakistan, the task remains not only to read the conjuncture in all its complexity, but to find the openings, slippages and contradictions which can unravel the prevailing historic bloc in favour of a new, substantively democratic one.


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