Home Opinion Op-Ed Imran Khan might be a populist, but he is no Donald Trump...

Imran Khan might be a populist, but he is no Donald Trump – Rupert Stone

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Rupert Stone |

He’s been called Donald Khan. And, at first glance, the similarities between Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, and the current US President are striking. Both are rich, celebrity playboys who rose to power as political outsiders. Both are populist nationalists vowing to defend the interests of ordinary people against corrupt and incompetent elites. Trump promised to “drain the swamp”; Khan pledged to eliminate corruption in 90 days.

The votes have been counted in Pakistan’s elections, and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e Insaaf party is the clear victor against its main challengers, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Although PTI does not have a majority, it won more seats than expected in the National Assembly and Khan will shortly form a coalition with smaller parties.

Khan is a renowned philanthropist. He has founded a network of world-class cancer hospitals in Pakistan, which Trump has not done in the US. Khan provided much of the funding himself and personally toured Pakistan and other countries to solicit donations.

It is a major political upset, upending the status quo that has dominated Pakistani politics for the past three decades. In that period, two parties, the PML-N and the PPP, have largely alternated in government. Both are dynastic – the PML-N associated with the Sharif family, the PPP with the Bhuttos – and notoriously corrupt. Khan presented himself as a clean politician who would put an end to their venality.

His message clearly resonated with the population. But many believe Khan has the support of Pakistan’s military. The media has reportedly been muzzled and candidates pressurized into joining Khan’s party or targeted by a politicized judiciary. Other parties have alleged vote-rigging, and a group of EU election observers raised their concerns. Either way, Khan will soon be prime minister.

Read more: PTI gets required number to form govt in Punjab, claims Fawad…

It has been quite a journey for the former cricket star. He captained his country to victory in the 1992 World Cup and achieved great fame in cricket-obsessed Pakistan. He soon married the wealthy British socialite, Jemima Goldsmith, and became a regular fixture on the London social circuit in the 1990s. Then he turned his attention to Pakistani politics, founding the nationalist PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf) party in 1996.

To better fit the bill of a conservative politician, Khan ditched his showbiz lifestyle and reinvented himself as a pious Muslim, not unlike the thrice-married Trump, who formed a strong bond with evangelical Christians despite his colourful private life (fun fact: both Trump and Khan are teetotal). Khan’s supposed links to religious extremists earned him the nickname “Taliban Khan”, and he has defended Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws.

The votes have been counted in Pakistan’s elections, and Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e Insaaf party is the clear victor against its main challengers, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

But there are important differences between the two leaders. First, Khan has more political experience. While it is true he has never been in government, he founded his own political party and held seats in the National Assembly, on and off, since 2002, and his PTI ran the local government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Trump had neither set up a party nor served in Congress prior to his election.

Second, Khan’s rhetoric is less offensive. True, he has called his political opponents a “mafia” and derided their supporters as “donkeys”. This is somewhat reminiscent of Trump’s attacks on “crooked Hillary” Clinton in the 2016 election. But Khan has never mocked women for menstruating, as Trump did with anchor Megyn Kelly, or for “bleeding badly from a face-lift”, as he tweeted last year about journalist Mika Brzezinski.

Trump has also spoken abusively of immigrants, calling Mexicans who enter the US “rapists”. By contrast, Khan has described Afghan refugees in Pakistan in sympathetic terms, as his “brethren-in-faith”. In his victory speech last week, he even expressed support for open borders with Afghanistan, a fry cry from Trumpian rhetoric about building a wall along the Mexican frontier.

Read more: PTI pushes out stubborn bigwigs

Admittedly, Khan’s approach to the US has been vociferous. He vowed to shoot down US drones flying over Pakistan, if elected. He has been highly critical of the American war on terror. But Khan’s vitriol is rarely personally insulting. Compare that with Trump, who slammed Canada’s prime minister as “very dishonest & weak” in a tweet. Moreover, Khan’s victory speech was conciliatory towards the US, calling for a balanced relationship.

Third, Khan is a renowned philanthropist. He has founded a network of world-class cancer hospitals in Pakistan, which Trump has not done in the US. Khan provided much of the funding himself and personally toured Pakistan and other countries to solicit donations. According to a 2016 investigation by the Washington Post, Trump has given nothing to his charitable foundation since 2008.

Fourth, Khan appears to be less authoritarian. Indeed, he has espoused a number of liberal and progressive political positions. He has supported the rule of law and called for elite accountability. He has spoken out against extralegal killings by Pakistani police. He has backed environmental policies, including his Billion Tree Tsunami project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa intended to combat deforestation. This is miles away from Trumpian politics.

In short, Khan might be a nationalist with some right-wing views. But “Imran Trump” he is not.

Rupert Stone is a freelance journalist focusing on Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. He has written for Newsweek, Al Jazeera English, The Independent, and other publications. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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