Imran Khan, a former prime minister, has said that the present administration should not be allowed to pick the next army commander. Instead, he has urged that the appointment be made on the basis of “merit,” although he has not specified what he means by “merit” in this context.
Khan, who has been serving as prime minister for for three years and eight months, has decided to flout almost a dozen different constitutional and legal norms and conventions just by making this remark. Has he decided to just disregard the constitutional method to select services chiefs and who is authorised to do so, or has he exhibited a lack of fundamental understanding on the subject? Has he chosen to simply ignore the constitutional procedure to appoint services chiefs and who is authorised to do so? Is it possible that, in order to make a political point, he purposely chose to ignore the constitutional procedure, despite the fact that it is very unlikely and indeed rather unsettling to think that a former Prime Minister is ignorant of it?
It is not the first time that he has selected public forums to address delicate problems merely for the purpose of increasing his political mileage. He utilises religion at will and turns it into a weapon so that he may get trivial, selfish advantages from it. In spite of the fact that he portrays himself to be a strong leader, he has no problem labelling his opponents as dishonest, corrupt, and even traitors. The foundation of his whole political approach is the dissemination of meaningless slogans and superficial ideas to the general population. He is not concerned with his own performance as a governor, but the leaders of his competitors have been seen to be inept.
All of these characteristics are quintessential examples of a populist leader. The populist movement is both a straightforward and intricate social phenomena. It is an oversimplification to assume that a leader’s popularity is directly proportional to the populist approach that they take. In spite of the fact that populism poses a threat to democracies, the concept of populism as defined by the dictionary seems to be harmless. Populism is a form of politics that claims to reflect the thoughts and desires of average people.
The term “populism” refers to a political ideology that describes itself as an approach that projects itself to appeal to ordinary people who believe that established political parties or organisations overlook their concerns. At first glance, it would seem that there is nothing wrong with taking such strategy. Every political party and every political leader enters the public arena with the intention of presenting an alternative answer to pre-existing public problems and complaints, while retaining the right to disagree with the methodology and ideology of other parties. When populist politicians portray a conflict between themselves and their political opponents as a war between good and evil, trouble is sure to follow.
A populist politician does not provide an improved form of administration; rather, they capitalise on the current popular impression of unfairness to advance their own personal political aims. A populist capitalises on preexisting public discontent by polarising society along two opposing lines: those who support them are portrayed as just and moral, while those who oppose them are portrayed as corrupt and immoral. Add personal charm and effective communication skills to this struggle between virtuous behaviour and immoral behaviour, and you have the makings of the ideal populist pied piper, able to persuade people to follow him despite his hollow promises.
Dissatisfaction with democracy, the state of an economy that is getting worse and worse, and the presence of anti-US and anti-establishment sentiments in society, combined with a view on the failure of tried and tested political parties in resolving governance issues, offer plenty of space for a populist to use to their advantage in this situation.
When Khan yells at jalsas that actual freedom, also known as haqeeqi azadi, is the ultimate political promise that he would make to the people, he does not explain what real freedom is, why Pakistan does not have it, or how it can be obtained. He does not even hesitate to say what he did about it when he was in government. He makes no attempt to explain his actions. He is making people dream a dream that he doesn’t have to break down on how to realise by saying that his self-respecting country is shackled to borrowing from IFIs and can’t fly high. When he says this, he is making people dream a fantasy that he doesn’t have to break down on how to achieve.
Incorporating the fact that his own administration has been in contact with the IMF into this more idealistic narrative is a little too handy. His followers believe it despite the fact that the reality of the hybrid governance model that was imposed on the country for the most part is deeply ingrained in history. When he accuses his political opponents of having sucked the blood out of the country due to corruption, his followers believe it. It is obvious that explaining how the populist leader has profited politically from that would not be in the populist leader’s best interest.
When he draws a vision of respect for the green passport on a global scale, the horizon is brightly lighted; but, he does not sketch the steps that are necessary over time to earn that regard. He is equipped with everything that he needs to utilise in whatever irresponsible manner that he chooses, including the ability to make sacred pledges and to stir up religious feelings. There is now a new vernacular attributed to Imran, and he employs it without discrimination in order to forward his own personal political agenda.
How can we then confront, rein in, and ultimately win the battle against populism, which has emerged as a major internal danger to our democracy? Political experts believe that the populist movement poses a greater danger to democracies if it is successful in gaining political power. According to the observations of the American political scientist Larry Diamond, populists “bring democracies down to match their authoritarian personalities and objectives.” They assault any and all kinds of democratic oversight, including the media, civil society, the independence of the judicial system, and parliament, and then they attempt to seize “effective control over electoral administration” in order to guarantee their continued rule. One option that is both simple and effective is to work against the electoral loss of populist candidates. This may seem to be a straightforward matter, but in order to accomplish that goal in the face of a rising tide, what tactics are required?
Despite the fact that there is no strategy that can be used universally, Pakistan is one of a large number of democracies throughout the world that are up against a comparable challenge. Larry Diamond offers a list of ways to defeat a populist based on the experience of numerous worldwide democracies. The list includes fundamental dos and don’ts that should be considered when fighting a populist, including the following: Do not adopt the populist’s technique of ‘out-polarizing’ and denouncing him in return; doing so would be ineffective and will only serve to solidify his support base and the opinions of those who are indecisive. It may be beneficial to implement an inclusive electoral approach that makes an appeal to the interests and good values of sceptics who are a part of the populist’s support base, without calling their ethics or motivations into question.
Avoid stooping to the level of the populist by imitating the manner in which they demonise their opponents and call them names. Demonstrate humility, empathy, and even love in order to counteract the toxic politics of hatred and separation that populists advocate for. Delve deeper into voters’ frustrations to do so. Develop a campaign approach that is upbeat, issue-based, and does not rely on sensationalism, and that focuses on the policy failures and weaknesses of populist regimes in order to present meaningful, practical, and non-ideological policy ideas.
Both democracy and nationalism are shared values, and as such, it is unacceptable to let populism take control of any of them. Celebrating the nation, its people, its culture, and its achievements is one technique that is both genuine and honest that may bring uniting pride in the country without trashing a foreign institution or government as the target of the celebration. Provide a sense of optimism and an optimistic vision of a better future that is inclusive, forward-looking, and hopeful, and that goes beyond just making a logical argument to interests or envisioning a technocratic future in which wise governance would prevail.
His parting words of wisdom, which also happened to be his most insightful, were as follows: “don’t be dull,” and “don’t overlook the stylistic aspect of political politics.” Utilize the same dynamic information arena that populists utilise to generate shock and awe in order to develop vivid and imaginative methods to transmit messages of hope, inspiration, and specific policy options, and do so with passion and conviction.
The author is a political analyst who focuses on topics such as democratic government, legislative development, and the rule of law.