Over the past week, a tense standoff between Imran Khan and Pakistan’s courts took centre stage in the country’s news cycle, generating serious concerns about the dangers to the stability of the political and legal system. The immediate crisis has eased, with both the judiciary and the former prime minister stepping back from the brink, perhaps recognising that a head-on collision would serve neither well. But the larger confrontation between Mr Khan and his followers on the one hand and the rest of the political system on the other is only likely to intensify as this year’s general election approaches.
Although Pakistanis and outside observers alike are accustomed to periodic high-stakes political drama, what is taking place differs significantly from the ethnic, dynastic and civil-military tensions that have traditionally dominated the country’s national politics. The cracks in this case run horizontal to those fractures and are best understood in terms of the polarising passions and chaos of Trump-style populism. But as with former US president Donald Trump, Mr Khan’s behaviour should not be confused with the underlying dissatisfactions of many in a rapidly evolving society.
There is no question that the 85 and counting cases registered against Mr Khan in the past few weeks and months are intended to hobble him before a general election is announced at some point this year. The Punjab provincial police’s mass filing of cases, and its raid on Mr Khan’s Lahore home, are all noteworthy given that they took place under a non-party caretaker government, rather than the party that is in power in Islamabad – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the bitterest political rival of Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. This suggests that the national-security apparatus might also be interested in tilting the table against Mr Khan ahead of the election.
Although some of these cases are unlikely to stand trial, others, such as the charge that Mr Khan profited from the sale of state gifts (such as luxury watches) officially presented to him in his capacity as prime minister, appear to be well documented. In contrast, the push to convict Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, of corruption and bar him from political office in 2017 proceeded on far thinner factual and legal ground, and required much greater finessing on the part of the senior judiciary.
Mr Khan’s belated willingness to compromise may have avoided turning the higher judiciary into yet another enemy for now, but his increasingly confrontational style of politics leaves that a distinct possibility. After all, he had been close to the military for decades, and the institution played a vital part in facilitating his transition from sports to politics, and his eventual rise to the top spot. The breakdown in that relationship says as much about why Mr Khan appeals so deeply to those who want to see the system shaken to the core, and why he struggles to appeal to everyone else.
Although Mr Khan had decried Pakistan’s major political parties as corrupt ever since he began considering the idea of joining politics in the mid-1990s, he had also evinced a kind of respect for the establishment. Like Mr Trump and other populists, Mr Khan positioned himself as an outsider while simultaneously seeking the seal of approval from powerful institutions, which in Mr Trump’s case meant the Murdoch media empire, Wall Street and evangelical mega churches. Perhaps, this is why informed observers did not expect this kind of “anti-politician” politics to become anti-systemic in any meaningful way.
But as with Mr Trump, those transactional endorsements helped pave the way for the emergence of a grassroots movement of true-believer voter-activists whose loyalty and intensity have transformed Mr Trump’s and Mr Khan’s relationship with everyone else.
Some media commentary has posed the question of whether Pakistan is heading towards a “January 6 moment”, but arguably the country already experienced this in August 2014 when Mr Khan’s supporters attempted to storm the National Assembly, unhappy over the results of the 2013 general election. Mr Khan has since then made a frequent habit of rejecting the validity of polls that he failed to win, claiming to represent a popular “tsunami”. For followers who are attracted by his willingness to attack the status quo and the powers that be, such defiance, whether successful or not, only deepens a sense of admiration and shared struggle.
In Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s case, this support base has grown far beyond the big cities in the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and has penetrated the small towns and villages surrounding them. Mr Khan’s message of personal agency and social transformation is appealing to many in a modernising countryside where the local economy is no longer dominated by prominent families or clan networks. His followers see his fights as mirroring their own, and his setbacks as symptoms of the pervasive rottenness that has also victimised them.
This antagonism against any and all who obstruct their leader in any way has been just as polarising as Trumpism in the US, in many cases generating conflict within families and institutions. This brightly burning belief in the legitimacy of their grievances has also enhanced the confidence in Mr Trump and Mr Khan alike to confront even those institutions they once courted or deferred to.
There has been a tendency to see the challenge of populism around the world as something that has peaked, but Mr Khan, who preceded Mr Trump, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and others by a few years, offers evidence to the contrary. Given their contempt for the system itself, it is unlikely that electoral defeat will ever be enough to send them home; their continued challenge to the most basic democratic norms remains robust and it is unclear just how much more change they will bring to the way that politics operate. Pakistan in that regard should not simply be seen as another troubled and distant country but, instead, as one of the most important leading-edge laboratories of democracy in the world today.