Can Early Elections Save Pakistan From A Populist Crisis?

Can Early Elections Save Pakistan From A Populist Crisis?
As Pakistan enters another spell of Long March this Thursday, postponed last week with the targeted shooting of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, the country is doomed to deeper polarisation and political instability. The attempt on his life was made while he was marching with his followers towards Islamabad against his ouster earlier this year, demanding early elections.  While the assassin has been arrested, who claims to have done it on a personal religious behest, Khan and his party leadership are blaming “the others” – the government and some senior military officers – to eliminate the voice of “the people”. Due to this politics of Manichaeism, Khan is often dubbed populist.

While Pakistan’s populist crisis looms large, Brazilians dodged theirs. On 30 October, the incumbent populist President, Jair Bolsonaro, lost his Presidential elections to the left-wing candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, making history for being the first Brazilian President to lose his second term. Many compared his defeat with that of American President Donald Trump – the archetypical right-wing populist – citing misgovernance and poor economy to be prime reasons behind loss of public support for both leaders.

The elected defeat of Bolsonaro, and likewise of Trump, raises hope of the power of the ballot box in defeating populism. Although populists rely on public discontent with the flaws of the system, which they highlight and exaggerate to present themselves as ones who understand and relate with public problems, they rarely have any real solutions to these problems. They make superficial and unrealistic pledges and, once in power, do not have any strong policy foundation to stand. Hence, once failed in bringing any real change to the system, they are bound to fall.

One, thus, wonders what if the government pays heed to Khan’s demand and announces the elections a little earlier than scheduled? As reflected by the results of by-elections, Khan’s party has good odds to score victory and be in power again. Most of his followers are frustrated with the system and his populism is channelizing it. Once, he is part of the same system and fails to deliver, just as he did in his last tenure, they’ll soon start hating him too. Frankly, given the public frustration over the economic situation in the country, Khan would have been ousted by the public in elections had the parliament not intervened. Now the wait has to be longer but by the next elections, he will be out once and for all.

But here’s the catch: Pakistan Elections Commission has disqualified Khan from holding public office for five years. This new wave of protests is a result of that decision. If early elections are announced, can Khan choose to control the party as a leader while remaining out of office, as other party leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari are doing? For a populist who speaks in the language of first-person pronouns, this might be unthinkable. So even if the Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif now announces the date of snap elections, it is likely to further the political turmoil, instead of ending it.

Given the spiraling economy, the still-going humanitarian crisis after disastrous floods, and the worsening security situation with TTP gaining power and support in neighboring Afghanistan, can Pakistan afford any further damage to its system? Can it wait to let democracy do its job and cleanse itself of a populist crisis on its own? More importantly, what if Khan’s fate does not follow that of Bolsonaro or Trump? What if he strengthens his position over time, just like India’s Modi or Turkey’s Erdogan, and becomes a problem too-big-to-handle?

Comparison with President Erdogan, the Islamist populist leader of Turkey known for being Khan’s inspiration, is particularly important as both leaders operate in a country with imbalanced civil-military relations and use religion card generously to present themselves as leaders of Ummah. President Erdogan is one rare, and worrisome, example of populism successful in converting a weak hybrid democracy to a competitive authoritarian regime. In doing so, he gradually disempowered the Turkish armed forces and made them go back to barracks (some to jail) after a failed coup. Now that Khan feels ditched by the military, he is likely to take some notes from his Turkish friend’s experience.

Before his ouster, Khan’s populism was targeted to his rival political parties only while letting pass the main power contenders of Pakistan – the military establishment that ruled over the country directly for more than 30 years and indirectly the remaining ones. Now, he has started openly naming some military leaders for having conspired with the U.S. to topple his government. Instead of opposing military intervention in political matters, Khan is doing what a populist can do the best – creating division. For the first time in Pakistan’s political history, the cleavage in the military institution is visible to all and seems hard to be glued back together through a change of leadership this November. Hence, military leadership must be thinking twice before trying to help Imran climb the power ladder again.

Elections might work against populists in democracies where elected regimes are allowed to complete their terms without interventions and a strong political opposition is allowed to counter the populist rhetoric in a free and fair elections. In the current environment of dissent and division, early elections would be a call to Armageddon - an open fight not just between political parties but between institutions and interest groups within institutions. The only solution left to try is to let the politicians take charge and reach a negotiated solution on their own, without any arbitration by the military establishment.