Return of populism in Pakistan?

William Milam draws some instructive parallels between Imran Khan’s and ZA Bhutto’s ascent to power

Return of populism in Pakistan?

While other observers are making definitive comments about the implications of the July 25 Pakistan election, the only thing I can make out is that it brings even more ambiguity into the outlook for the country’s future. Some observers believe that Imran Khan is a populist, and that Pakistan has again joined the ranks of countries led by a populist politician. The haunting memory of the previous so-called populist leader of Pakistan (whose credentials as a true populist were also somewhat dubious) causes much angst among those who declare Khan a populist. And that angst is not misplaced, however shallow his populist ideology.

I wonder how deep his populism goes. Populists of either right or left have one objective as their primary aim: to get rid of the establishment and deconstruct the institutions of the state and reconstruct them in their own image in order to use them to increase their hold on to power. The fact that Imran Khan ran against the civilian establishment does not prove his populism is a deeply held belief rather than a convenient political vehicle. If, while in power, he continues the assault on Pakistan’s increasingly fragile institutions, it may be just because it is their weakness that helped bring him to power.

Many countries led by populist leaders have retreated from under-developed forms of democracy to some stage of authoritarianism. These countries often still call themselves democracies, asserting that as they have elections they must be democracies

One difference for sure from the previous perceived populist leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, is that Imran Khan is a populist of right; his main ideology is nationalism. Another is that the club of populist-led countries has grown disproportionately in the last decade or two, and he will have many likeminded counterparts. Many countries led by populist leaders have retreated from under-developed forms of democracy to some stage of authoritarianism. These countries often still call themselves democracies, asserting that as they have elections (not freely and fairly contested, however) they must be democracies. The mere fact of elections, however, does not make a democracy.

Am I predicting this for Pakistan? Not necessarily, although it cannot be ruled out. But there are many elements of Pakistan’s political structure that would work against Khan’s populist tendencies. First, Pakistan is, at best, a rather distorted semi-democracy. How can we term it anything else when strategic, security, and much foreign policy is decided by an unelected, and basically unaccountable, institution — the army? Even in most authoritarian states, except those in which the military has elected itself by seizing power, armies are subordinate to the civilian authorities. Second, Khan’s PTI has not secured a majority in the Pakistan’s National Assembly and as in all parliamentary systems, he will have to govern at the head of a coalition. Though the results were slow in coming, it now seems the PTI has won 116 seats, which leaves it 20 short of a majority in the full Assembly of 372 members. He will lead a coalition government and the PTI seems to have enough pledges from small parties and independents to form a government. Pakistan is, of course, no different from most developing countries in that it is the economic rents that accrue to parties in the government that is the glue that holds coalitions together. Historically, however, populists do not sit easily in parliamentary coalitions and it will be interesting to see if Khan’s supposed populism drives him in directions that will unglue any coalition he finds himself leading.

An even more interesting question and perhaps a good indicator of the depth of his populism, is whether a populist leader of an elected coalition government can co-exist with a powerful institution such as the army which has established, over many years, de-facto control of much of the central policy making apparatus of the state. There has not been much question since 2002, when President General Musharraf civilianised his hybrid military-civilian government, that the army was a co-equal (if not better) to the civilian government, and that it is basically in charge of security and foreign policy. And perhaps more important, as a co-equal to the civilian governments since 2008, the army must have had a say in the division of economic rents.

Populists are hard to define, and sometimes hard to recognize, and in some ways, Khan has looked like one during his 20 years in politics. But populism is what political scientists call a very “thin” ideology in and of itself: almost always its only tenet is throwing out the political establishment, which in populist terms is corrupt by definition. “Draining the swamp” American populists call it. Khan came to the political arena ragging against the corrupt establishment and calling for it to be thrown out. That seemed his only agenda. Khan has thickened his ideological posture by adding nationalism. But there is even a contradiction in his thin populist ideology which makes it thinner; he has not included the army as part of the political establishment he wants to get rid of. As the army has clearly been a significant part of the political establishment since he entered politics, his bona fides as a populist are open to challenge. Maybe we should label him a pragmatic populist. We will not know the extent of his populism until we see how he manages his relationship with the army.

There are other parallels to ZA Bhutto in Khan’s rise to the pinnacle of political power. Bhutto, the populist politician had railed against “the establishment” which in the late 1960s clearly included the army, but my impression is that he trained most of his fire on the feudalist structures of society. Like Khan, Bhutto also took a very strong anti-India position. In fact, though he fell out with the army after the 1971 war had begun, Bhutto came to power in 1972 with the aid of the army. This appears to have happened a little less overtly for Imran Khan, if one is to give some credence to the stories of the army’s not-so-subtle interference in the July 25 election. While there is always reason to apply some discount to the claims of “rigging” by losing parties in South Asian elections, as a necessary element in the politics of the region is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the winner. However, the stories at least available in the Western media are too pervasive to ignore, and ring particularly true in the context of the recent moves by the Army to increase its political power. Or perhaps it is more accurate to write that it asserted the increased political power that it already had.

Of course, that leads us into the other, and the much murkier, side of the question of how he will govern, i.e. how the army looks upon Khan. If the army is, as some of its critics maintain, on a path to suppress the major political parties that could and possibly would, under some leaders like the now-incarcerated Nawaz Sharif, be strong enough to challenge it, his election will be welcome. But if the army expects Khan to be its lapdog, as he sometimes seemed to be while he aspired to power, it must also be aware its only other brush with populism turned out very badly. After it helped bring Bhutto to power, he turned on the army and removed almost 30 senior officers in the early months of his tenure as the first step to subordinate it politically. His greatest failure may have been to back off that process believing he needed the army to handle serious political problems, such as the insurgency in Baluchistan.

The pragmatic populist Khan may avoid confrontation with the army, but only by narrowing any ambitions he may have to turn the government in a populist direction, assuming that there are no great differences with the army over the split of economic rents. But it is not clear that his ambitions run in that direction. Gaining power may be the limit of those ambitions, and in parsing his rhetoric over the years, one could come to the conclusion that he and the army are on pretty similar ideological wavelengths. This would not be good news for Pakistan.

The author is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.