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January 10, 2019

A hallway of heroes


January 10, 2019

What do Mahathir Muhammad, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Lee Kuan Yew and Lula da Silva have in common? They are all leaders or former leaders of their countries, and each one has played an instrumental role in changing his country in one way or the other. They are also all men with an authoritarian tendency.

Mahathir Muhammad, again elected president of Malaysia in 2018 at the age of 90, may indeed have set up infrastructure projects and helped develop the economy of his country. But he was also ruthless in his crackdown against dissidents, opponents and politicians who opposed him. Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore built a country where virtually nothing existed – but he also favoured corporal punishment, even for relatively minor offences, putting 43 crimes on the list for which people should be flogged. These included illegal immigration.

Lula da Silva of Brazil, certainly one of the most populist leaders of his era in Latin America, is currently in jail for corruption and Erdogan has been noted for his fierce crackdown on anyone opposing his views, including those in the media and others, notably since the attempted military coup in Turkey in 2016.

What is also common amongst these leaders is that they have all been praised in public by Imran Khan as leaders he admires for their policies. Perhaps some of these policies are worth admiring. But there are many others which are not. Locking up civil society activists is definitely an undemocratic trend. So are attempts to crack down on press freedoms and the other basic rights of people. Almost all on Imran’s list are guilty of this.

Lula da Silva, the maverick leader and former labour union activist who engineered social change in Brazil is something of an anomaly. Lula, as he is universally known, was initially seen as a socialist, though this changed along the way through his long years in power. The fact that he has been found guilty of corruption by courts in his country makes it particularly ironic that he should be on Imran’s list.

The prime minister of Pakistan would do well to read a little more deeply and with a little more attention to detail. Certainly, in our country – or for that matter in any other country – repression almost inevitably creates upheaval and increased frustration amongst people. We need a true disposition towards democracy and a genuine desire to bring change. This change should focus not simply on drives against corruption and other practices which could be interpreted by some in the country as being openly vindictive, but instead look towards the future and make a genuine attempt to alter the lives of the people who live in desperate misery.

For this purpose, the PTI government and its leadership could look at the clear-cut policies outlined by Mexico’s new president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, almost universally known by his initials AMLO, who was elected last year in the same month as Imran. The left-oriented but moderate leader clearly has policies which he is able to put forward articulately and which focus on dealing with corruption, crime, drugs and the economy in Mexico. His party has planned carefully and intelligently.

The issues of Mexico are very similar to those faced by Pakistan. Obrador has however promised that there will be no vendettas and no action against opposition politicians even when they are charged with corruption. Instead, he hopes to lead by personal example, take a ‘softer’ approach to governance in a country where unrest is not uncommon, and work essentially to uplift the lives of the most impoverished people in a nation of 129 million.

Going further and when he finds time, Imran Khan, in between his other duties, would perhaps also benefit from studying the policies adopted by Evo Morales in Bolivia, which have created economic change in the South American nation. There are other examples too from nations such as Rwanda, which under President Paul Kagame, who won a new election last year with over 90 percent of the popular vote. Kagame has over a period of nearly a decade rebuilt his country’s economy, made it a tourist destination, resurrected it within the African continent and pushed aside the ugly shadows of the Rwandan civil war of the early 1990s which killed over 800,000 as rival tribes massacred each other in one of the most brutal genocides seen in recent history.

While naming a list of leaders best known for their stern rule of their nation, it is somewhat alarming that Imran does not list Nelson Mandela, who held together his country at a time when it could so easily have fallen into disarray and bitter strife through his actions. Mandela’s sense of humanity prevented him from launching a vendetta against leaders of the apartheid regime which had for so many years kept him in jail, killed many others and imposed hugely discriminatory laws against the country’s black majority.

Justin Trudeau, the young president of Canada, is also a reformer the PTI could learn from. His emphasis on encouraging social change, ensuring equality for women and minorities, multiculturalism, inter-faith harmony and in many ways altering the image of heads of state through his informal interactions with people is encouraging in this age.

Of course, all these individuals have their weaknesses, faults and critics. But they all bring with them the kind of open approaches and liberalism that Pakistan could so greatly benefit from. It is unfortunate then that they have gained no mention in the press conferences from our own prime minister or by others in his party.

There is a basic problem for Pakistan. As a delicately balanced federation, care has been taken not to create further friction between provinces or units. There is also a need to build harmony and ensure that the trust of people in government can be restored. The uncertain start taken by the PTI, with ambiguity over whether it will follow IMF-dictated demands in full, or precisely what economic path it intends to follow, is disturbing.

Certainly, other leaders in other nations seem surer of their strategies – even though not all will succeed entirely in meeting all their promises and pledges. We do however know that even the sometimes flawed attempts to do so by men like the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela brought huge change to his country, even if that change sadly collapsed with the early death of Chavez himself. Dedication to the rights and liberties of people needs then to be the first priority of leaders.

People also need to see that this is the case. Focus on taking revenge or on promoting a cult-like mentality will only do harm. Our wounded country cannot afford further injury. PM Imran has every right to choose the people he considers his heroes. But perhaps he should think deeper and consider multiple factors before making his lists.

Leaders all over the world have different strengths and different weaknesses. Looking at those who follow varying patterns and differing ideologies can only bring strength to the PTI’s own attempts at governance, and in the longer run benefit all the people of the country.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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