IK: anti-imperialist hero or authoritarian populist?

Tooba Syed dismantles the myths surrounding the former cricketer’s supposedly anti-imperialist tenure in Pakistan

by Tooba Syed

Despite his best attempts and amid unproven allegations of foreign interference, Imran Khan was removed from power by a vote of no confidence in the National Assembly of Pakistan on 11 April. Earlier that same week, Khan had attempted to block the vote and dissolve the assembly but the Supreme Court ruled against him, deeming the move unconstitutional.

Khan has now become the 22nd prime minister of Pakistan to be ousted without completing their term, yet the very first to be removed by a vote of no-confidence. Khan’s removal was ultimately as dramatic as his arrival in mainstream politics, after his party’s 2013 win in provincial elections in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.

Khan’s path to power

Imran Khan came to power after the 2018 general elections in Pakistan, making promises to bring an end to the rule of corrupt politicians and their dynastic politics. His political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was founded in 1995, a few years after Pakistan won the cricket world cup under his captaincy. Khan gained popularity through the world cup win as well as his philanthropic work.

Khan’s populist anti-corruption slogans gained him the support of the urban middle-class youth who are under-represented in the mainstream political parties. His party also had the support of the upwardly mobile in urban areas, the military and powerful establishment figures. But even alleged election rigging in his favour was not enough to secure a simple majority. The government was enabled by independent candidates, who were wooed in by sugar industrialist and politician Jehangir Tareen to vote in favour of Imran Khan. He got 176 votes, the slimmest majority of any prime minister in the last decade.

Imran Khan’s three and half year term is popularly known as the hybrid regime. He failed to form cooperative relationships with his allies or the opposition. His regime was typified by widespread abuse of civil and political rights. Political opponents were framed in several court cases; popular judges were witch-hunted; left-wing political workers were harassed, intimidated and often abducted; nationalist leaders and directly elected members of the National Assembly were jailed for speaking at protests; feminist activists were dismissed and false allegations were made, and students were baton-charged.

Khan’s economic policies served the same elite individuals favoured by the dynastic parties of the past

Khan’s rule was an authoritarian, populist regime fuelled by jingoism. Journalists who criticised the policies of his government were labelled sell-outs and traitors, followed by massive hate campaigns online by the ruling party’s troll accounts. When the families of Shia Hazara coal-miners, an ethnic and religious minority who lost their loved ones to yet another sectarian attack, refused to bury their dead until the prime minister visited them, Khan accused them of blackmailing him. When feminist activists protested against increasing sexual violence in the country, Khan said feminism was a western ideology, ruining our family values and culture.

Khan has used this anti-western sentiment again and again throughout his time in office. Throughout all this political rhetoric, what Khan leaves behind is a flailing economy where millions of working people are struggling to make ends meet.

An anti-imperial façade

Many on the global left have bought into the narrative that Imran Khan is an anti-imperialist figure challenging long-established empires. The truth, however, is his economic policies remained pro-capitalist and served the same elite individuals favoured by the dynastic parties of the past. Khan remained anti-left throughout his regime while appropriating the language and slogans of the left.

His government actively encouraged infrastructural developmental projects which displaced and dispossessed thousands of working people across the country. Inflation in the country reached an all-time high, public institutes were privatised, higher education budgets were cut and mass sackings of workers happened. The empty slogans of anti-Americanism might strengthen his propaganda but it should not be mistaken for genuinely pro-people politics.

Pakistan has been a victim of imperialist wars and neoliberalism for decades now. There is, of course, a need for anti-imperialist politics more than ever in the country. The fact that the international left fell for Khan’s rhetoric speaks volumes about the disconnect between the left in countries such as Pakistan and the left in imperialist countries. It points towards the urgent need to form an internationalist anti-imperialist politics.

Anti-imperialism is tied to anti-capitalism and slogans of foreign meddling and conspiracies should not distract the left from identifying one of its core political agendas. The government of Imran Khan continued to collaborate with the global financial institutions, giving in to their anti-people policies and conditions.

Shahbaz Sharif, brother of the former thrice prime minister Nawaz Sharif, has now been elected by the National Assembly as the new prime minister. Less than a week later, the Punjab provincial assembly elected Shahbaz Sharif’s son as the new chief minister, strengthening the dynastic politics in Pakistan. The people of Pakistan lack choices, on one hand, there is the same dynastic politics of the past and on the other hand, the empty populist slogans of Imran Khan. Both these paths have failed the people of Pakistan.

Yet the current moment in Pakistan and Khan’s ousting presents an opportunity for the left in Pakistan to revive its anti-imperialist politics and align itself with anti-imperialist forces globally. This must co-exist with organising at a local level. Only true people-centric politics can rescue Pakistan’s democracy.

Tooba Syed is a political activist associated with Awami Workers Party and Women Democratic Front. She is a gender studies lecturer and feminist writer, currently working on her first book on the feminist movement in Pakistan.

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