Tuesday August 16, 2022

The limits of populism

February 19, 2018

Politics is like alchemy. One wrong ingredient here or there and your life’s work can go up in flames. The smoke from Lodhran shows that Imran Khan has done just that.

The wrong ingredient is Nawaz Sharif unbound: free of the shackles of the prime minister’s office; tasting the blood of democratic populism, perhaps for the first time his life. Imran Khan’s authoritarian populism appeared invincible against a cornered democratic government; it seems to be without feet against the monster he unleashed himself by expending all his energies on Go Nawaz Go for four years.

Imran Khan has been in politics for more than two decades. However, the PTI in its recent populist form is a new phenomenon. British-French journalist and author Ben Judah, in an interview published in The Sunday Times Magazine on February 4, compared Imran Khan with Donald Trump on a number of issues. Similar observations have been made by many Pakistani analysts and political scientists as well. What puts the two in the same league is a modern brand of populism, termed ‘authoritarian populism’ by Canadian intellectual and politician Professor Michael Ignatieff.

Authoritarian populism is often associated with a strongman ruling a country. However, thanks to technology, authoritarian politics has taken shape outside the government and in many countries such populists have come to define, dominate and control the political space while remaining out of the government.

Authoritarian politics is essentially old reactionary politics shaped by conservatives’ desire to take society back to simple old ways. For decades, Imran Khan defined tribalism as the ideal form of human society; he was a cheerleader for the Taliban for almost a decade; he professes ideological affinity with the Jamaat-e-Islami and he is doling out public money to mullahs and seminaries notorious for breeding extremism, while children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remain deprived of basic education.

At the same time, authoritarian populism is modern and politically innovative. It uses social media to crowd source anger, hate and resentment. Social scientists around the world are still trying to make sense of the conditions that have made this phenomenon possible.

The virtual political space where this Trumpism has thrived has two important characteristics that can be related to this brand of populism. The first element is virtual disinhibition – the sheer shamelessness and subversion of all norms of civility that have defined public space from time immemorial. In the virtual space, there is no way to sift the real from the imagined, the right from the wrong and the genuine from the fake. It is a perfect place for our internal personal devils to thrive and take charge of affairs. This disinhibition provides the jet fuel to authoritarian populism. This is a world of naïve but dangerous narratives – a world where leaders like Donald Trump and Imran Khan can hold sway.

The second important characteristic of the virtual space is the bubble that imprisons a social-media user in a make-believe world. This bubble is created through algorithms used by social media technology. Not many people know that Facebook and Twitter feed them what they like and keep them immune from what they dislike. You like one Farhan Virk; Twitter will give you a hundred more. Very soon you will be a Farhan Virk yourself, living in a world populated by Farhan Virks, happily oblivious of the existence of any other type of human. There is no space for critical engagement, antithesis or synthesis.

Imran Khan and the PTI’s rise coincides with the popularity of Facebook and Twitter in Pakistan. Facebook was founded in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. It was between 2008 and 2013 when the two platforms found a massive following in Pakistan, mainly due to drop in the cost of smartphones and internet access.

By 2013, the PTI’s vote bank had risen from one percent to 15 percent. Interestingly, many populist parties in Europe have a vote bank that ranges between 15 and 18 percent. Alternative for Germany (AFD), the right-wing populist party founded in 2013, has a vote bank of 14 percent.

Like his European counterparts, Imran Khan has attacked democracy from inside. And he has also found resonance, and allegedly support, from authoritarian forces within the system. He has proved a bigger blow as Pakistan is still in democratic transition. He has been able to subvert the democratic development that happened during 2008-2013 and turn it into democratic decay.

Since 2013, Imran Khan has defined the political space while staying out of power. He was able to convince the Supreme Court to take up a case it had earlier thrown away as frivolous. His biggest success, and perhaps the gravest blunder, was the ouster of a popularly elected prime minister before any accusations against the latter could be proved through a trial.

When Nawaz Sharif was ousted, he had mellowed down into a disinterested, dysfunctional prime minister, holding the post half-heartedly. It was his ouster that energised him and enabled him to stir up democratic populism which, for the time being at least, has proved a perfect antidote to Imran Khan’s authoritarian populism.

At one level, it is a conflict between the middle class desire for accountability against the working class desire for representation. In the political space, the poor have nothing but votes. Accountability has remained a joke in Pakistan since the 1950s. Almost every episode of accountability has further eroded its credibility. The new kind of jurisprudence and judicial innovation that has defined every step of the cases against Sharif has hardly helped in improving the credibility of the process of accountability. A large section of voters sees accountability as a ploy to subvert their right of representative democracy.

If elections are held today, in all likelihood Imran Khan will fail to improve upon his performance of 2013. However, authoritarian politics is not about numbers only. Authoritarian politicians feel they have a right to rule, irrespective of votes or size of following. In this they resemble jihadis who claim a right to rule on the basis of their ideology.

Authoritarian politicians can wind their way to power when other democratic forces and state institutions feel intimidated and try to appease them or use their energy to their own advantage. In 1921, Mussolini had only 35 seats in a house of 535 but it was the fascists who controlled the streets. In Pakistan’s National Assembly, the PTI has only 32 seats in a house of 342 and its followers dominate both the streets and social media.

Imran Khan’s first dharna failed to pull down an elected government because other political forces closed their ranks to protect democracy. His recent successes can be ascribed to the changed attitude of the PPP that stupidly wants to harness Imran Khan’s destructive energy to its own advantage. There may be some legitimate reasons behind this sheer opportunism, but it should not ignore the consequence of its policy choices. Like always, the fate of democracy is linked to the PPP.

The people in Lodhran have changed their mind about authoritarian populism backed by a huge patronage machine. They have indirectly defeated a candidate who is notorious for using his enormous wealth for politics. In 2014, a tribunal led by Justice (r) Wajihuddin Ahmed found Tareen responsible for massive rigging in intra-party elections, and recommended his ouster from the party. It was Wajihuddin who was ousted. The people of Lodhran have voted against duplicity and the moral bankruptcy of authoritarian populism.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan