Pakistan can be added to the list of countries whose politics have been dramatically shaken up in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
The Movement for Justice party — PTI from the initials of its Urdu name – led by former cricketer and multi-millionaire Imran Khan, got 0.8 percent of the vote in 2002, boycotted the elections in 2008 and rose to 16.9% in 2013. This time it got 31.9% and a near majority in the national assembly, with Khan looking set to become prime minister.
The traditional parties of the Pakistani ruling class, the openly conservative Pakistan Muslim League and the supposedly left-wing Pakistan People’s Party, are in crisis. The extreme corruption associated with both is part of what has given the PTI its appeal.
There is enthusiasm for Khan and his movement among some Pakistani-background activists in the Labour Party, including some on the left. Khan has compared himself to Jeremy Corbyn, citing a desire for “economic justice” and opposition to US foreign policy, particularly in Afghanistan and the bordering areas of Pakistan. (The Counterfire group has published an article virtually hailing Khan – see bit.ly/2vMhplU.) But the PTI is not a left-wing party in any sense. It is a tightly controlled top-down organisation, almost a personality cult; a neo-liberal force; and in many respects something worse.
Having used rhetoric about an “Islamic welfare state” to gain support, Khan’s spokespeople are now floating the privatisation of most of Pakistan’s remaining state-owned companies — for instance, Pakistan International Airlines, previously saved by from being sold off after a struggle by its workers and whose privatisation the PTI opposed a few months ago! This is part of an attempt to get a bailout from the IMF, with all the obvious economic and social consequences.
Moreover, Khan, though he still trades off a liberal and cosmopolitan image in the West, has over the years moved further and further down the road of religious conservatism, working with Islamists, defending the country’s blasphemy laws and displaying indifference to the persecution of religious minorities.
Alarmingly, though the traditional far-right Islamist alliance MMA didn’t do that well in the election, a new even more extreme group raising the slogan “Death to the Unbelievers”, Tehreek e-Labbaik, leapt to 2.2 million votes, over four percent.
Last but not least, Khan is the preferred prime minister candidate of Pakistan’s powerful army and security services, who also cooperate with some Islamists, and there seems to be evidence of low-level but significant election-tampering in his favour.
Khan and the PTI may help the Pakistani ruling class and political elite to establish greater independence from the US and revamp their economy on the backs of the country’s workers, peasants and poor, getting out of the impasse in a way the more evidently corrupt old parties could not.
Despite the rise of political Islam, and the mainstream’s accommodation to it, there are also secularising and progressive trends in Pakistani society. This was the first time three non-Muslim national assembly members, Hindus representing the Pakistan People’s Party, were elected. Women voted in large numbers, including in areas where they have previously been afraid to. Despite the religious conservative nature of Khan’s politics, many seem to have voted PTI for essentially liberal and anti-sectarian reasons, particularly young people. Pakistan also has a left and labour movement, though weak and beleaguered. As far as I can tell one socialist was elected to the national assembly, Ali Wazir, a member of the Struggle group who leads a Pashtun movement fighting for the rights of victims of the ‘war on terror’. Wazir has had numerous family members killed by the Taliban.
There are plenty of people in Pakistan we can support, and they need solidarity.