Wednesday May 29, 2024

Moving forward after the election

PTI deserves credit for pushing back against restrictions and intimidation to mobilize its support base

By Husain Haqqani
February 15, 2024
Supporters and activists of PTI are holding a protest demonstration against alleged rigging in General Election 2024 on February 10, 2024. — PPI
Supporters and activists of PTI are holding a protest demonstration against alleged rigging in General Election 2024 on February 10, 2024. — PPI

The unexpected results of Pakistan’s twelfth general election, held on February 8, have created both a threat and an opportunity for the country. The threat is one of political deadlock and confrontation; the opportunity is for defining a political way forward that is different from Pakistan’s turbulent past.

Most observers agree that voters expressed their disdain for establishment meddling in politics and showed disapproval for high-handedness and repression by voting for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) affiliated independents. The PTI deserves credit for pushing back against restrictions and intimidation to mobilize its support base -- young Pakistanis angry with the status quo and lack of opportunities, unimpressed by corruption and dynastic politics, and looking upon Imran Khan as the country’s saviour.

Imran Khan, once the establishment’s choice, has benefited from the narrative built over three decades to describe traditional politicians (and others questioning the establishment’s policy prescriptions) as ‘crooks or traitors.’ The establishment may have realized in 2022 that polarizing the nation is not a recipe for national success, but its traditional constituencies have not. Imran Khan has used the establishment’s decision to stop supporting his polarizing rhetoric to turn establishment-supporting voters against the establishment.

Now Imran Khan rails not just against the civilian ‘crooks and traitors’ but also denigrates Pakistan’s institution of last resort and the ‘outside powers that back it’, Imprisonment has not forced him to change his stance and only adds to his popularity. Current events, and promises of future greatness, make people forget the past rather quickly. That is often the reason for the success of populists across the world.

The former cricket celebrity is now the anti-establishment icon even though he and many of his supporters endorsed General Musharraf’s military coup, supported establishment-backed ousting of past prime ministers, and proudly proclaimed that they were ‘on one page’ with the establishment until Imran Khan’s ouster from the office of prime minister through a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

Abusing and ridiculing opponents and blaming the establishment for the frustrations and suffering of the people offers an outlet for those who otherwise see no way out. Defiance against the established order and pinning hopes on a saviour has led to the electoral gains for populists, from the Philippines and Hungary to the United States.

But the purpose of elections is to choose a government, not just vent frustration and rage. Even if a party sweeps an election, it needs to be mindful of the voters who did not support it and of constitutional and legal niceties that distinguish parliamentary democracy from other political systems. It is in providing a broad-based, functioning government that populists often fail and, even after its impressive showing in the February 8 election, the PTI is no exception.

There is no doubt that the PTI was denied a level playing field in the elections, as has been the case with any party disfavoured by the establishment in past Pakistani elections as well. But past victims of the establishment negotiated with other political parties, bargained with the establishment and found a way forward.

Allegations of poll rigging are unlikely to change the fact that the PTI will not be able to form a government either at the centre or in Punjab. The PTI has refused to talk to other major parties and its numbers alone are not enough to constitute a parliamentary majority. Petitions for recounts or repolling in individual seats could take a long time to wend their way through the legal system. Every Pakistani election has been followed by one or another party complaining about its mandate being stolen, sometimes with good reason. But eventually, elected assemblies are convened, governments are formed, and life goes on.

Although Pakistan’s politics can take unexpected turns at any time, the chances that social media activism and a vocal younger generation’s frustrations will lead to a revolutionary overthrow of the existing order appear slim at the moment. It is true that the PTI is facing the brunt of state repression and is, therefore, gaining sympathy. But the legacy political parties that have been targets of similar repression in the past are far from decimated.

The formation of government by parties other than the largest group is not unknown in parliamentary democracies after an inconclusive election. Pakistan needs a government to deal with critical issues such as negotiations with the IMF and other creditors over a new economic bailout. Both the PML and PPP realize that taking the helm of Pakistan at this moment amounts to wearing a crown of thorns. The PML seems willing to do it while others have their eye on the next election. Not having a functioning government would be worse than having a weak government.

Instead of letting uncertainty and instability persist, Pakistan’s politicians could take a path they have never taken before. They could forsake personal conflicts, and extreme narratives portraying each other as irreconcilable enemies engaged in battle, to form a government of national unity. The PTI could join it, state repression could end, and genuine national reconciliation could begin. The country could focus on setting right its economy and foreign relations.

The PTI’s direction, however, is set by one man, Imran Khan, and he is not someone amenable to compromise. Research on his political career reveals two consistent themes. One is his admiration for right-wing Islamist ideology and the other is disdain for all Pakistani politicians, except himself. His decisions after the latest national election also confirm those constants. Imran Khan has refused to negotiate with the two large mainstream parties and has opted to align with the religious parties, Jamaat-e-Islami and Majlis Wahdat ul Muslimeen (MWM).

These decisions might render the PTI even less effective as the party of governance if the party were indeed to form a government now or in the future. Imran Khan successfully built a conspiracy theory about regime change by using a message from Pakistan’s ambassador to the US about a frank conversation with an American diplomat. That has made most international interlocutors wary of Imran Khan’s populism and conspiracy theories. The irony is that the rhetoric that makes Imran Khan popular at home makes it difficult for Pakistan to build relationships abroad that could help Pakistan deal with its economic crises.

The writer, former ambassador of Pakistan to the US, is Diplomat-in-Residence at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC.