As Imran Khan’s Populism Goes Bust, Pakistan's Hybrid Regime Remains Mired in Crisis

Imtiaz Alam | 03 June 2023
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The cricketer’s dramatic rise to and treacherous fall from power is not an exceptional phenomenon. It is essentially a replay of the fate of successive protégés of a short-sighted military establishment with its constitutionally flawed designs.

The sporadic but frezied attacks on Army installations in Pakistan on May 9 – mainly in the province of Punjab, the backbone of the Army – by youthful Imran Khan followers outraged by his humiliating arrest were unprecedented in the history of the ‘garrison state’. Most provocative for the Pakistani brass was the destruction of memorials dedicated to various wars with India. Even a politically ‘reluctant’ and ‘moderate’  armed forces leadership was unlikely to take such defiance of its power lightly

The exceptional patience of the military high command on the day in the face of violent provocation was probably aimed at avoiding a bloody showdown with not-so-large but furious crowds of Punjabi youths. What followed, of course, was a massive crackdown of the kind that is expected of military regimes – aa crackdown which has put the political future of Imran Khan – once the army’s hand-made, illiberal, populist leader – in serious jeopardy. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), couldn’t take such a serious jolt and has crumbled like a house of cards. In just a matter of days, Khan’s second and middle-level leaders have, under duress or fear, left their charismatic leader at the mercy of circumstances. A now isolated Imran Khan is blaming the May 9 mayhem on the “agencies”, while his scattered cult followers wait in hiding for his next call.

It seems that Khan, after successfully running a narrative that his ouster – through an otherwise constitutional in-house change – was a “foreign conspiracy to dislodge him with domestic facilitators”, has lost his wits as there is a huge groundswell in favour of the army. Allies in the Shehbaz Sharif coalition government, reeling under mass disappointment over its poor performance and hyper stagflation, have found a great opportunity to capitalise on Imran Khan’s shenanigans and the adventurism of his amateur, anarchist followers. The double gamble that Imran Khan played, first by wooing the army’s high command to resume its patronage and then threatening it with pressure from within, and from retired military personnel, finally backfired when he crossed the Rubicon.

The mass defections from PTI remind one of the similar way innumerable politicians in their hordes were ‘persuaded’ to join Khan’s popular bandwagon just before the 2018 elections. In Pakistan’s electoral history, except for the 1970 polls, the electoral rating of a leader or party is not enough. What makes a campapign successful is the green signal of ‘acceptability’ from GHQ and the institutional ‘political engineering’ that ensures ‘positive results’ in elections. Of course, the elections in 1988, 1990 and 1996 were also rigged against Benazir Bhutto, the chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and in favour of former prime minister and president of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) Nawaz Sharif, a protégé of ex-dictator General Ziaul Haq. In a Bhutto-anti-Bhutto political divide, the tussle between these two leaders allowed the military establishment ample room to play one against another.

Two leaders who defied the fauji playbook were Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who became leader of Bangladesh after the defeat of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan, and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – who used the  political space created by the 1971 shock to emerge as Pakistan’s most powerful prime minister and make country a democratic republic under the 1973 constitution. But, the saga of the brutal murder of Sheikh Mujib and the judicial murder oftZ.A. Bhutto tells the tragic story of democracy in these two countries.

Imran Khan’s dramatic rise to and treacherous fall from power is not an exceptional phenomenon, though it carries some very unique and conflicting elements. It is essentially a replay of the boom and bust of successive protégés of an all-pervasive military establishment that has continued to make and break hybrid regimes to suit its shortsighted and constitutionally flawed designs. As Nawaz Sharif – despite being groomed and built as a conservative alternative to the progressive and liberal Bhuttos – became a leader in his own right, he was sacked thrice for asserting his prime ministerial prerogatives. Similarly, when a most pampered “ladla” Khan, favoured by former COAS General Qamar Bajwa and former DG ISI General Faiz Hameed, tried to trespass the “prohibited areas” of the appointments of the next army chief and DG ISI, he got his fingers burnt. Sensing Khan’s future authoritarian designs, the opposition parties rallied in the Pakistan Democratic Movement and promptly brought a vote of no-confidence against him. As his allies, on the wink of generals, left his coalition to join the PDM (plus PPP) government, the ‘democratic alliance’ conveniently forgot its 26-point agenda of reconfiguring civil-military relations and establishing civilian supremacy.

The chaotic blame game and conflict between ‘creator’ and ‘creation’ testifies to the crisis of the prevalent hybrid system brokered by the Army. As the personality cult built around the persona of the Great Khan comes to haunt its manufacturers, its de-construction is causing greater troubles than could have been anticipated. When populism goes towards the mass psychology of fascism, it is difficult to unravel it without demolishing all those traits of a cult that are eulogised by the masses. Compared to Z.A. Bhutto’s radical populism mixed with authoritarian tendencies, Imran Khan’s illiberal populist appeal combines quite diverse facets and instinctive fascinations among various age groups of men and women. He remains a cricket hero to a wider club of cricket fans, among upper-class middle and old-aged women in particular. He has a glamorous masculine appeal of a celebrity among a vast section of young men and women. A financially Puritanical philanthropist with a misogynist and religiously righteous stand has great appeal among the middle classes who adhere to a meta-narrative that is pro-Army and anti-politician.

Like Anna Hazare’s 1991 Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan,  or People’s Movement against Corruption in India, which finally struck a chord with the masses in 2013, Khan, after struggling in the wilderness for over a decade, launched his justice movement against the corruption of the parties of the old regime in his first big rally at Minar-i-Pakistan in Lahore in 2011. He was backed by no less than successive DGs of the ISI from Hamid Gul, a pro-Taliban jihadi hawk, to the Machiavellian General Faiz. His famous dharna against the third Nawaz Sharif government in 2014 was also backed by the then DG ISI General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and the then COAS General Raheel Sharif, who wanted an extension of his tenure. All parties across the aisle in parliament united and foiled Imran Khan’s street coup. But, later, judges sympathetic to Khan disposed of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and dubiously disqualified him from holding any public office on a flimsy charge for all times to come, thus paving the way for the PTI chief to emerge.

As prime minister for over three and a half years, Imran Khan enjoyed being on the “same page” with the Army leadership until he tried to outsmart his benefactors, who were by then quite disenchanted with his poor governance. Surrounded by sycophants and fortune-seekers, the kaptan not only failed to deliver on any promise, except fixing his opponents and the media. He did not let any leader emerge in the provinces he governed, nor allowed a worthwhile team to flourish. Now, he is left with a disorganised mass of chaotic youths without any ideology and any measure of organisation at any level. Unlike the Bhuttos and the Sharifs, who withstood the pressure and hostility of the establishment for long periods and survived, Khan’s political fortunes seem deeply uncertain.

His party may not and should not be banned, nor his followers be tried by military courts. The human rights bodies and the liberals, whom Imran Khan has always been castigating, are yet again coming forward to defend the civil, political, and human rights of his party and activists.

What makes the current political imbroglio more pervasive is an all-out crisis of the political economy of Pakistan and the unsustainability of a heavy ‘national security state’ on the basis of a dependent and fragile economic base over-burdened with debt and defence expenditure and rent-seeking elites. The current crisis is further fuelled by the intra-state conflicts among various power structures and state institutions vying for retaining their fiefdoms or expanding their respective space beyond their ‘constitutional mandate’, which is not adhered to by any pillar of the state. Post-Bajwa, the military under COAS General Asim Munir had vowed to keep away from politics, but Imran Khan forced it to run out of patience, and the May 9 ‘mutiny’ has drawn a red line that will have its own adverse consequences on a fragile democratic transition. From the fall of the hybrid regime of Imran Khan, Pakistan may be moving toward yet another edition of a quasi-democratic dispensation – or worse, a civilian version of martial law.

Imtiaz Alam is a freelance journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan, and Secretary General of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA).

This article was originally published on The Wire.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.