IGP Stories

Populism strikes back

Sumrin Kalia

15 February 2024

On 8th February elections were held in Pakistan, under the military tutelage. These elections were significant for three reasons. Firstly, they were being held at a time when the country had barely avoided an economic default and its foreign exchange levels are dangerously low. Secondly, they were elections of a young electorate; 44% percent of total registered voters are below the age of 35. And thirdly, these elections were mired by heated tensions between Pakistan’s powerful military and its hugely popular leader Imran Khan.

Khan, the country’s populist ideologue rose to power in the 2018 elections, with support from the military. During his time in power, he gave considerable decision-making access to the military. Prominent TV channels were forced to shut on several occasions and journalists faced intimidations, threats, and termination. Khan also aggressively discredited his political opponents and heavily relied on ordinances rather than parliamentary debates to push legislative changes.

However, his government did not last long, and he was ousted from premiership, after a fall out with the military. Khan subsequently directed his populist critique towards the country’s powerful military. The latter unleashed an oppressive campaign against the former. Khan turned from a being a darling to a nemesis of the establishment. In the meantime, the alliance of opposition political parties, which had replaced Khan’s government not only performed abysmally on economic governance but also yielded extensive power to the military establishment. This resulted in increasing political instability and socioeconomic discontent.

In the months leading up to the 2024 elections, Khan, and his party, PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) was subjected to especially harsh treatment. Khan’s party leaders, and workers were arrested and specialized military courts were used to threaten, intimidate, and even torture them. A media ban was imposed which barred journalists and TV channels to even mention his name. Khan himself was jailed, facing several legal cases which led to his disqualification from holding a parliamentary office. Just weeks before elections, Khan and his wife were sentenced for over 14 years in three cases. This was followed by taking away the party’s electoral symbol which then forced many of its candidates to run as ‘independents’.

The 2024 elections were held under heavy military tutelage which put all its efforts to prevent Khan’s ascent to power. The caretaker government installed by the military delayed the elections which induced a sense of political uncertainty. The establishment also engineered the return of Nawaz Sharif, one of Khan’s main political rivals. On election day mobile services were suspended and an internet blackout was imposed.

Despite heavy electoral rigging and political engineering, the country’s establishment could not control the outcome of the elections. Instead, the election results showed that Khan’s party, PTI, had emerged as the most popular party against all odds.

Unlike 2018, Khan’s party was the underdog in 2024 elections. The military’s oppressive tactics, intended to sideline Khan, backfired. Instead of discrediting and weakening his appeal, they helped cement the party’s underdog image. Khan managed to gain sympathy even from his harshest critics. Journalists and media outlets also did not take their censorship lightly and kept insisting on their right to freedom of speech. Among all the tactics the one that proved most instrumental in turning anti-establishment sentiments into electoral support for Khan was the ‘un-Islamic marriage’ case. The ex-husband of Khan’s wife filed a complaint against Khan and his wife accusing them of maintaining illicit relations and marrying during the Iddat period. Iddat is a mandatory three-month waiting period for Muslim women following divorce or the death of their husband, during which they are prohibited from remarrying. This judgement invoked a harsh criticism from the media, civil society, women’s groups and even Khan’s political opponents. It was seen as setting a precedent which could worsen the already sorry state of women’s rights in Pakistan.

More than Khan’s popularity, these elections demonstrated the intensity of the anti-establishment sentiment among Pakistanis. It was not only Khan’s defiant stance that made him the embodiment of the anti-establishment sentiment. Instead, the establishment’s oppressive playbook and its encroachment into Khan’s personal life backfired and triggered electoral retaliation. Khan’s populism became a channel though which the electorate expressed its popular rejection of the establishment’s tutelage.

With a predominantly young population, high inflation, a stagnating economy, and climate induced crises, Pakistan is in dire condition. It has the highest infant mortality rate in South Asia. The country’s Human Capital Index is also lowest in the region. More than 20 million children are out of school, and three million die every year due to malnutrition. A large number of young Pakistanis are leaving the country. This level of discontent and anger will only provide more ammunition and appeal to populism.

Even as the 2024 elections have demonstrated the appeal of underdog populism, and its ability to channel anti-establishment sentiment, how they will shift the direction of Pakistan’s politics remains to be seen. Although Khan’s PTI affiliated independent candidates hold the highest number of National Assembly seats, they fall short of a majority. The two major mainstream parties led by Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto follow by relatively close margins. This may mean a parliament which will be too weak to resist military tutelage. What role will Khan’s populism play in this political dynamic will be interesting to watch out for.

Dr. Sumrin Kalia is a post-doctoral fellow at the ERC funded Takhayyul Project working on South Asia. Her work at Takhayyul focuses on the socio-political processes which feed Islamist populist politics in Pakistan.

Photo by Shamsher Ali Niazi on Unsplash

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