Prior to being elected, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was known for his ability to employ the massive street power of his followers as means to pressure the government. He was on the receiving end last week as he dealt with massive anti-government street protests across the country led by Islamists opposed to the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who spent eight years on death row for blasphemy charges. The government eventually made a deal with the Islamists and the protestors went home, but do not be fooled by the calm. How Khan dealt with the reaction to Bibi’s verdict is a warning about the future and his limited ability to manage anything that comes under the purview and interest of Islamist groups.
Khan’s initial remarks following the verdict alluded to an intent to curb the whims of religious hardliners who maintain a stronghold on aspects of the policy space. Telling Islamists to not “harm this country in order to [increase your] vote bank” is a bold public statement, perhaps unlike any other made by an elected official in Pakistan. But Khan’s remarkable pronouncement and strong leadership was immediately undone by the deal his government made with the lead Islamist group, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, to “initiate the legal process” for Asia Bibi to be placed on the exit control list, preventing her from fleeing the country.
Khan is known for his bold statements – his willingness to make them indeed contributed to his popularity and political rise. But just after two and a half months in office, he has already backtracked on numerous measures, including a promise of citizenship to Pakistan-born children of Afghan refugees, and the withdrawal of the appointment of Princeton Economist Atif Mian as economic advisor due to Islamist groups protest of Mian’s Ahmadi Muslim background.
While elected officials changing their tune or backtracking is nothing new in politics, Khan’s backtracking on the verdict shows just how hard it is push back on a political system that has both nurtured and also been held hostage to growing Islamist influence for several decades.
During elections, politicians woo and court Islamists, hoping they follow through on promises of delivering deep vote banks and a path to electoral victory. Once in office, Islamists expect a return on their support, wielding the weapon of street protest and violence should the state pursue policies antithetical to their agenda. As we saw this week in the protests across Pakistan, it is a weapon that has considerable sway. Islamists know their value and influence because the state has time and time again reinforced it, both in the electoral process and also in negotiations over policy.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the party of the outgoing prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was notorious for supporting extremist groups in southern Punjab in order to tap into their vote banks. In 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari signed a bill that introduced Islamic law into the Swat Valley, then controlled by the Pakistani Taliban, as a concession for peace deals with the militant group. Throughout his tenure from 1999 until 2008, military dictator turned President Pervez Musharraf made numerous concessions to Islamist parties in exchange for their participation in his weak government.
It is clear that Islamist parties continue to have the upper hand in a political process in which the government maintains a weak coalition and one in which authority or credibility is questioned. Khan, a Prime Minister who rode a popular wave but during a questionable campaigning environment riddled with irregularities and accusations of vote rigging, should be worried – so should anyone interested in policy gains on issues that Islamists tend to influence. Beyond the blasphemy law and minority rights, other issues such as Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and rapprochement with India will be up for negotiation given the Islamist focus on them.
As with everything in Pakistani politics, we must consider what role the invisible hand of the military establishment plays with regards to the Islamists, whose rise in politics is partially the result of the political engineering of the military. The establishment’s interpretation of civilian leadership and performance is of political consequence, as the military has often moved into power on the backs of inept and corrupt politicians.
The state’s encouraging and allowing of religious hardliners to run for office in the parliamentary elections this year will reap important dividends for the Islamist agenda, but what of the Pakistani people? Islamist parties are not popular in Pakistan and many Pakistanis do not identify with them on a cultural and social level. And for Pakistani Christians who endure systemic and institutionalized discrimination, Khan and the government are going to have to do a lot more than speeches to protect them.
A political reality where political influence of Islamists disproportionately outweighs their appeal is not a democratic one. Khan and his government should be more worried about the possible protests of millions of Pakistanis who voted him in to create a new Pakistan that challenges establishment forces rather than reinforce them. His success and the country’s democratic future depend on it.
This guest blog post is written by Shamila N. Chaudhary, Director of The Pakistan Forum at Johns Hopkins SAIS. You can read more about her here.
D.C. based writer, foreign policy analyst, photographer, and former White House and U.S. State Department staffer and Afghanistan and Pakistan junkie now recovering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies