Friday June 14, 2024

Dangers of populism

By Javid Husain
May 19, 2022

Pakistan is in a state of turmoil, engulfed as it is in a reckless populist campaign spearheaded by Imran Khan and motivated by narrow party interests and personal considerations, irrespective of its negative impact on the country’s stability, security and economic well-being.

The campaign has been directed not only against the PTI’s political opponents but also against state institutions. In the process, Imran Khan and the PTI have badly destabilized the country politically, weakened its economy, damaged its foreign policy, and endangered its security.

Populism plays upon people’s sentiments by peddling popular slogans as instant solutions to complex national issues. It presents appealing but simplistic views as an alternative to sound policies evolved through debate and discussion to come to grips with the problems confronting a nation. Populism may succeed temporarily in gaining cheap popularity for its practitioners, but it rarely succeeds in putting its target country on the path to long-term security, progress and prosperity.

Populist leaders generally tend to be dictatorial in their thinking and in dealing with national issues. They consider state institutions as obstacles in their way rather than as valuable mechanisms for the evolution and implementation of state policies in the best interest of the people. The last thing that a populist leader wishes to see is the scheme of checks and balances among various state institutions enshrined in most democratic constitutions. So populist leaders invariably have a tendency to bypass or even violate constitutional provisions for bending state institutions to their will.

This is what former US president Trump did in January last year by rejecting the results of the presidential elections and launching his supporters in an attack on the US Congress to overturn the election results. Imran Khan did something similar when under his direction the deputy speaker of the National Assembly unconstitutionally dismissed the no-confidence motion against him.

Even otherwise, he has used populist methods and slogans to steer politics in the country in the direction that suits him. In the process, he has debased political discourse in Pakistan by using abusive language against his political opponents, peddled hollow slogans instead of focusing on the formulation and execution of sound policies, resorted to unconstitutional steps in the service of his personal and party interests, criticized state institutions without merit, and blatantly used instruments of state power for political victimization.

Imran Khan initially sold to the nation the idea that corruption was the root cause of all Pakistan’s ills. Corruption undeniably is a major issue in our polity and all possible efforts need to be employed to eradicate or at least minimize it. But even more important is the formulation and implementation of sound policies and reforms to accelerate economic progress, reduce poverty, inflation and inequalities of income and wealth, provide justice to the down-trodden, and develop the country’s physical and social infrastructure, particularly science and technology. Since Imran’s attention was focused more on sloganeering rather than sound policies, the country now is worse off taking into account almost every major economic indicator compared with the situation in 2018 when his government came into power.

Under Imran’s rule, Pakistan’s foreign policy suffered several setbacks. His government managed to slow down CPEC which is Pakistan’s economic and strategic lifeline and cool down relations with China which has been Pakistan’s steadfast friend since the 1960s, damage Pakistan’s relations with the US, and mishandle relations with India enabling it to annex Kashmir in August 2019 in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In response, we could not persuade the UNSC even to hold a formal meeting to discuss Kashmir.

Imran Khan’s ineptitude in running the affairs of the government was combined with his inability to make a dent in rampant corruption in the country contrary to his professions before his election as prime minister. In fact, if Transparency International is to be believed, corruption in the country increased under his watch. As the unpopularity of the PTI government increased because of poor governance and increasing corruption, it increasingly relied on political victimization of its opponents, religious card, and media management to prolong its tenure.

In the face of the prospect of the success of the no-confidence motion against his rule in the National Assembly, Imran tried to arouse people’s nationalist sentiments by accusing the US of conspiracy with political leaders in the country to oust him from power. He has persisted in this charge even though two meetings of the National Security Committee, one chaired by him and the other by PM Shehbaz Sharif, and our intelligence agencies failed to find any evidence of such a conspiracy.

It appears from Imran’s pronouncements at his recent public meetings that he has no intention of changing course and is prepared to push the country towards anarchy in his mindless pursuit of power. For this purpose, besides using the card of nationalism and terming his political opponents as traitors, he is also playing the religious card by portraying his political struggle as jihad, thus inflaming public sentiments on both sides. He has characteristically failed to put forward specific policies which will make the performance of his future government better than the past one.

This is not normal politics in a democratic framework in which political parties present their respective views on important national issues for debate and consideration by the people who then give their mandate to rule the country through the electoral process. It is impermissible to brand one’s opponents as traitors or evil for political gains. No political party can be allowed to arrogate to itself the right to decide what is good or bad for the country. This right in our case belongs solely to the people of Pakistan to be exercised in accordance with relevant constitutional and electoral procedures. Imran and the PTI need to learn that there cannot be any exception to these rules for them or for anybody else.

The writer is a retired ambassador. He can be reached at: