Populism: What Imran Khan’s Mob Politics Yields

The essence of politics lies in the honorable and honest service to the people, aiming to resolve problems within a community, society, and at the state level. In civilized societies, this problem-solving mechanism typically employs peaceful methods and best practices. For a long time, Pakistani politics has been characterized by peace and decency, particularly in its dealings with the people and the state. However, the trend has shifted under Imran Khan’s PTI, as they have embarked on a targeted campaign against state institutions to achieve their political goals. This campaign has involved constructing narratives against both state institutions and rival groups, orchestrated by Imran Khan and his party.

The unprecedented sporadic violent attacks on May 9, carried out by angry young followers of Imran Khan as a reaction to his humiliating arrest, targeted armed forces installations in Pakistan. These attacks included the desecration and destruction of memorials dedicated to the courageous heroes and martyrs of past wars with India. Even the relatively moderate military high command could not tolerate such defiance of their power and honor indefinitely. However, they displayed exceptional patience in the face of this violent provocation, likely to avoid a bloody confrontation with the enraged Punjabi youth. The May 9 incident seriously jeopardized the political future of Imran Khan, the illiberal populist leader crafted by the military. Consequently, PTI has experienced a rapid decline, with many of its second and middle-level leaders abandoning the party while condemning the violent actions of its members.

It seems that after successfully propagating a narrative of a “foreign conspiracy” to remove him from power with domestic facilitators, Imran Khan has lost his rationality. The government allies in the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) saw a golden opportunity to capitalize on Imran Khan’s recklessness and the adventurism of his inexperienced anarchist followers. This double gamble played by Imran Khan backfired when he crossed a certain line, resulting in a mass exodus from PTI, reminiscent of how countless electable politicians were persuaded to join his bandwagon just before the 2018 elections. While Imran Khan’s rise to power and subsequent fall is not an exceptional phenomenon, it does possess unique and conflicting traits. His illiberal populist appeal resonates with various age groups of both men and women, intertwining diverse facets and instinctive fascinations.

During his tenure of over three and a half years as prime minister, Imran Khan enjoyed a harmonious relationship with the military leadership, being on the “same page” with them. However, his attempts to outsmart his benefactors led to their extreme disenchantment with his incompetent governance. Surrounded by sycophants and opportunists, Imran Khan failed to deliver on his promises, aside from targeting his opponents and controlling the media. He prevented the emergence of strong leaders within the provinces he governed and hindered the growth of competent teams. Consequently, he is now left with a disorganized mass of chaotic youth lacking any ideology or organizational structure.

What exacerbates the current political turmoil is the all-encompassing crisis in the political economy and its unsustainable nature. Imran Khan’s anti-state narrative further fuels this crisis. Although the military, under COAS General Asim Munir, initially pledged to stay out of politics, Imran Khan’s actions pushed their patience to the limit, and the events of May 9 drew a clear red line that will have adverse consequences on Pakistan’s fragile democratic transition. 

Targeting and blaming one’s own institutions based on flimsy grounds is an irrational approach, especially when coming from a senior politician who has held the position of prime minister. Pakistan requires a complete system overhaul to restore public trust in state institutions, ensuring good governance. Once trust in these institutions is reestablished, politics will no longer be involved in governance. Instead, transparency and accountability will prevail, leading Pakistan toward a peaceful, stable, and prosperous future.

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