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Pakistan elections – behind Imran Khan’s populism lies more neoliberalism

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Issue 2615
Imran Khan, Pakistans new prime minister
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s new prime minister (Pic: Jawad Zakariya/Flickr)

Imran Khan, the former Pakistani cricket star, declared victory in the country’s general election yesterday despite allegations of widespread fraud.

As his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party enjoyed success across the Pakistan, Khan made a televised address to announce himself as the country’s prime minister-elect. Rival parties have rejected the results, however, amid growing outrage at alleged vote rigging by the military.

The result is a major upset in a country where two main parties have dominated politics for decades, despite their rule being regularly interrupted by military coups.

The PTI is a relatively new party that likes to portray itself as a fighter for the poor and lower middle classes.

The party centred its campaign on its pledge to drive out the corruption in politics, government and big business. That’s a popular demand among poorer Pakistanis who look on at the stratospheric wealth of their rulers.

Khan has made much of his charitable work, such as his foundations that builds hospitals and schools where state provision is largely absent. He has also spoken out against the “war on terror”, demanding peace talks between the state and the Pakistani Taliban.

In reality, the PTI is a party of the professional classes, frustrated by Pakistan’s apparent inability to make a global economic breakthrough.

They demand “reform” to make the state more efficient—but know they need a wider social programme to win votes.

The future brings more repression but also opportunities for the ordinary masses to agitate and demand more freedoms while the bourgeois parties stand divided

Riaz Ahmed, Pakistani socialist

The party’s opposition to military intervention against the Taliban and others stems from its desire to maintain the unity of the state, rather than any principled objection to imperialism.

Pakistani socialist Riaz Ahmed argues the new government will face many challenges, in addition to attempts by the ousted parties to get the election declared void.

“Politicians in traditional parties cannot resolve the economic crisis.

“They cannot cut public sector spending. They cannot make exporters happy by devaluing the currency because they can’t bear the public anger against the resulting inflation,” he said.

“The last government had to roll back its privatisation plans after massive resistance by airline and steel workers.


“The war in Afghanistan created a backlash inside Pakistan, forcing governments led by both the main parties to launch massive military operations to crush militant Islam. This resulted in horrific human rights abuses.”

“The changing global economic balance provides opportunities in only one direction—China.”

Pakistan is facing multiple economic crises.

For years, the country has imported more than it exports, forcing it to dig deep into its foreign currency reserves. Now the stocks of cash to pay for further imports are almost dry.

Pakistan could be forced to return to the International Monetary Fund for yet another bail out. But the terms of any such deal will be harsh. It will demand big cuts in public spending.

The PTI, which speaks of creating an “Islamic Welfare State” and the desire to “eradicate poverty”, would be forced to attack millions of its own voters.

“Behind the smile of Imran Khan’s populism lies the iron fist of the state,” said Riaz. He predicts that attempts to make the poor pay for the crisis will be met by struggle.

“The past ten years have proved the working class and the lower-middle class – through agitations against exploitation, cuts and denial of freedoms – have continued the resistance.

“The future brings more repression but also opportunities for the ordinary masses to agitate and demand more freedoms while the bourgeois parties stand divided.”

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