The rise and fall of Khan: Why Pakistani politics has long been dictated by the same narrative

Pakistan politics
6 min read
21 April, 2022
Criticisms of the main political parties being built on a 'political dynasty' or those posing as anti-establishment just highlight how politics in Pakistan has always polarised people and only perpetuated the country's instability.

On 11 April, now ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan became the first Pakistani prime minister to be ousted through a vote of no-confidence.

Opposing parties to Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaf), led by the popular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement.

Aided by a dozen defectors from Khan’s own party, the coalition managed to overthrow him despite multiple attempts from the 69-year-old leader to call out the vote as unconstitutional and blame it on foreign involvement in influencing his ousting. 

With 19 individual prime ministers so far, there is yet to be a single one who has completed their five-year term and Khan seems to be the latest to fall prey to the tumultuous and ever-shifting tide in Pakistani politics that many believe is powered by the whims of the establishment.

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Despite Khan’s many claims to be different, and to provide an alternate 'people-focused' politics to the two ruling dynastic parties in Pakistan (PPP and PML-N), his conventional rise and even more unsurprising fall from power just goes to show that Pakistani politics has long been dictated by the same narrative.

“In recent history, the battle has been between the two main parties – PPP and PMLN – and it’s a clear attempt from the establishment to play people against one another. Even Imran Khan's rise as a supposed third alternative to all this has been in this sense an illusion," says lawyer and writer Salaar Khan.

"There’s an illusion of choice given to people and it's in the interest of people to maintain that illusion"

"There’s an illusion of choice given to people and it's in the interest of people to maintain that illusion,” Salaar adds while also adding that this is just one aspect of a very convoluted political history. 

Even when it comes to Khan’s criticism of the two main parties being built on a 'political dynasty', politics professor Hassan Javid talks about how this goes beyond the two main families of the Bhuttos and the Sharifs – even though they do play a major role in it.

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Hassan talks about how PTI’s popularity is built on the charisma of a singular leader – Imran Khan which creates the same problem that the cricketer-turned-politician chooses to criticise.

Adding to that Hassan points out how since 1970, Pakistani politicians have come mainly from the same 400 families, and even in PTI, 77% of their members in the 2018 Punjab Assembly were dynastic politicians.

"From the law declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the blasphemy laws under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, it is clear that Khan’s legacy of sponsoring support through hate is a tale as old as time in Pakistani politics"

Freelance researcher and writer, Zoya Rehman, further adds that despite PTI supporters posing as anti-establishment they actually are not at all. “They merely want to stand against one particular person who was part of the ousting of their leader but they have always been pro-establishment,” she claims.

In fact, it is their very severe pro-establishment and pro-status quo stance that has also led to state-sponsored online violence and the inciting of hate against women under PTI’s regime, Zoya adds.

From the law declaring Ahmedis as non-Muslims under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to the blasphemy laws under General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, it is clear that Khan’s legacy of sponsoring support through hate is a tale as old as time in Pakistani politics.

A lot can also be gauged about the role of democracy in Pakistan from the fact that it took the country 23 years to hold its first general elections in 1970.

Those elections became a turning point when Bhutto formed a government despite the East Pakistani (now Bangladeshi) Awami National Party gaining the majority of votes. The result of those elections ended up being the separation of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bhutto was later removed from office by Military General Zia, whose rule brought in a severe Islamisation of Pakistani society.

Zia's Islamisation was a counter to Bhutto’s left-aligned policies and the military leader had Bhutto hung under charges of murder and betrayal of the state.

In both his imprisonment and death penalty, the court sided with the military. Bhutto was preceded by his daughter Benazir Bhutto, who served two terms as Prime Minister, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari who was the President of Pakistan from 2018 to 2013, and now his grandson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari who is the chairman of the PPP party founded by Bhutto himself.

Even today, PPP supporters chant the popular slogan, 'Aaj Bhi Bhutto Zinda Hai' (Bhutto Is Still Alive Today).

Political analyst and ex-PTI supporter Dr Ayesha Navid points out that slogans and emotions have dominated the majority of people’s involvement in politics since the 1970s. “We as a society are very emotional – we believe more in emotions and feelings than facts and figures. Slogans are used to gather attention and people believe these slogans.

"For example, if a leader says they'll make an x number of dams, everyone believes them. No one questions it. They make leaders gods and can't accept that they can make mistakes,” Dr Navid added. 

"We as a society are very emotional – we believe more in emotions and feelings than facts and figures"

Zia’s extremely unstable rule saw multiple prime ministers dismissed under his new presidential amendment, which allowed the president undue control to take any step to protect national integrity.

His death was followed by a tussle between PPP’s Benazir Bhutto and PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif as they continued to alternate in the office of prime minister until General Pervez Musharraf’s military coup in 1999. 

It’s not just one leader that relies on these emotional biases of the people to sway voters. Many citizens following the current political chaos have equated Imran Khan’s mass rallies and emotional speeches to MQM’s Altaf Hussain and his hold over the crowd, or how Zia-ul-Haq used his controversial referendum asking for support for Islam in order to get himself reelected.

With four different instances of martial law – two before Zia and one after – and a slew of prime ministers being dismissed, it’s not hard to believe that democracy has had little real presence in Pakistani politics. 

This heightened emotional involvement of people’s support has only continued to get more and more convoluted with access to constant information and opinions over social media.

But Salaar Khan says that calling it a debate would be a misunderstanding. “To call it a debate is a misnomer, increasingly it feels like everyone is just shouting at each other and hearing the echoes of their own voices within their own echo chamber.

"We’ve seen contempt for law and constitution, a denial of plain fact, the willingness to go to whatever extent necessary to retain space within the narrative – whether that’s through allegations of treason, disloyalty to state or by simply stoking a religious fire." 

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist with bylines in VICE, HUCK, and The Guardian among others. She has experience writing on minority politics, activism, and gender issues. She is also the founder of the Pakistani community platform, Perspectives Magazine.

Follow her on Twitter @anmolirfan22