In the summer of 1989, the American magazine, The National Interest, published an essay with the strikingly bold title, The End of History, in which the American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, pronounced that history had ended. The failure of communism and the subsequent collapse of the “Soviet Union” was touted as the triumph of western liberal democracy.
At that time, Fukuyama’s thesis was well received, with both approval and skepticism. The prognosticated “Victory of Liberalism” lasted roughly a decade. When Vladimir Putin ascended to power in 2000, it turned out to be true that skeptics were right.
Strongman: The Rise of New Breed
The rise of the strongman is the 21st century’s brand of politics. Before going into details, we need to understand this phenomenon first. Ruth Ben Ghiat, an American scholar on fascism, contends that “strongman is a brand of politics in which a charismatic leader believes to be a savior, blurring the distinction between government, party, state, and ignoring the need for the restraint of executive power through check and balances.” We are witnessing a shift in politics, as Andreas Schedler argued that “we live in strongman’s electoral authoritarianism.”
Gideon Rachman, a Financial Times columnist, in his book, “The age of Strongman” published earlier this year, writes that during the last two decades, strongmen from Russia, Turkey, India, Hungary, Brazil, China, the USA, the UK, Israel, Ethiopia, and more have slipped under the radar by imitating democracy. The central argument of his comparative study of flawed figures is that, for a rising generation of strongmen, Putin is an archetype.
After coming to power, he rolled back democratic progress made since the collapse of the Soviet Union, quashed dissent, and toppled institutions that stood in his way of absolute power. Other reactionaries hostile to western led, rules-based international order and liberalism have emulated his actions. Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, is no exception, but he is not on Rachman’s list of strongmen.
What does Imran Khan have in common with other strongmen?
Rachman defines them as “nationalists and social conservatives” they claim to represent the real people against corrupt elites; everywhere they go, they encourage a cult of personality and contempt for state institutions. This speaks well to Imran Khan. He shares several traits common to those of Trump, Erdogan, Putin, and Modi. Like the Philippines’ former president, Rodrigo Duterte, Khan’s political base is the urban middle class. Duterte exploited the public’s distrust of politicians and disgust with corruption. Intimidated and jailed opponents repressed the media and free speech. The latter imitated the former.
The beleaguered captain shares stark similarities with the former US president, Donald Trump. Khan adopted many of his slogans, peddling conspiracy theories, incessantly jibing at opponents, deriding institutes, denouncing fake news, discrediting mainstream media, and using political correctness as a rhetorical tool to undermine rivals.
During the 2014 Islamabad sit-in, the cricketer-turned-politician called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “faithful man” and appreciated him for his efforts to bring back black money stashed abroad. Both Khan and Modi extensively campaigned against corruption; both are populists and have a strong belief in hard power politics, and use religious and nationalist cards for political gains.
His stint as the premiere is full of gaffes. He doesn’t care about diplomatic protocol. After the 2019 India-Pakistan standoff, nobody in Pakistan could expect a sitting Prime Minister of Pakistan wishing Modi to win the elections, but Khan surprised not just Pakistanis, but Indians too. Now he showers praise on Modi’s independent policy.
The purported savior of Pakistan is ideologically close to Turkey’s pugnacious leader, Erdogan. He often hails the Turkish strongman for his leadership skills; when he was in government, he even asked Pakistani envoys to follow Turkey’s diplomacy model. Both know how to get away with mismanagement and ignoring constructive criticism, simply they know the pulse of the masses and play them quite well.
The cornered tiger’s admiration for Xi Jinping’s poverty alleviation and anti-corruption policy of “catching tigers and flies” is not a secret. He wished he could follow Xi’s example of putting 500 corrupt politicians in jail in Pakistan and set a precedent for generations to come.
Even though Pakistan’s disgraced strongman hadn’t had much interaction with Putin, but when he assumed power, he tried to simulate the Russian mystery man by enacting a “cybercrime” law akin to Russia’s 2014 “draconian” law for online media, in which Russian authorities asked bloggers to register with the mass media regulator, Roskomnadzor, and obey all the mass media regulations. Tech giants were bound to follow the country’s law, and allow authorities access to users’ information. In contrast to Putin, Khan proved to be weak. After facing backlash from the media and civil society Khan’s Administration rescinded the controversial law.
Khan ostensibly studied other despots, but misread them. He is impetuous; wants to rule with an iron hand like Putin and Erdogan but forgets that the transition from an outsider to the system, to becoming a strongman, takes time. Contrary to Putin and Erdogan’s first terms in power, the Pakistani strawman’s performance was below par.
Things that Khan, the hothead, needs to learn
If he wants to stay in power for such a long time, like his fellow strongmen, he must learn the following things before the 2023 general elections.
Politics is not cricket, and he is not a cricketer anymore. It’s a game of nerves; it requires patience, planning, and performance to knock out opponents. During his previous term, political vendetta consumed him; if he becomes prime minister again, he must focus on the future rather than vengeance. Last but not least, do not talk about emulating the Chinese, Malaysian, or Iranian economic models, nor about the Islamic welfare state of Medina or replacing the parliamentary system with the presidential one. For the time being, masquerade as a democrat and brand himself as a reformer as Erdogan and Putin did.
Way forward for Pakistan
Creating and eliminating leaders is not a way forward. Pakistan’s political history abounds with such events. The military’s attempts to remove politicians from the scene have always backfired. Political leaders, as a result, become larger than life. Following Bhutto, Khan’s longtime nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, is an example of the military’s counterproductive efforts to eliminate leaders politically.
Neither the army nor the allies’ government stops him from winning. Only the masses can do it. Hence, the need of the hour is to provide relief to the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society and educate them with digital and media literacy to distinguish right from wrong and elect the leader of their own choice.
Written by Asad Lashari
The author is a freelance writer. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.