The PTI has squandered its chance to act like a political party and not a frothing-from-the-mouth, perennially agitating mob.
As Turkey began rounding up the putschists, Imran Khan stood before a crowd in Kotli, Azad Kashmir, at a pre-election rally and told those in attendance that if there were a coup in Pakistan, people would celebrate the upending of the system with sweets.
Nuance, of course, has never been Imran Khan’s strong suit and given that he is nearing 64, it is highly unlikely that he would pick it up now.
One could dismiss his rants but for the fact that he leads a party with 33 National Assembly seats, the third-largest in the house, and governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, one of the most sensitive provinces of Pakistan. There’s a sizeable chunk of youth, men and women, who support him and are influenced by what he says, to the point that while mounting an argument and selecting ‘facts’, they can lose the etiquette generally associated with decent difference of opinion. Incidentally, there’s strong evidence that Khan has been instrumental, through his own style of attacking opponents, in inculcating this woeful lack of manners in his followers.
Given this situation, one can, unfortunately, not dismiss Khan’s extravagant fulminations as the result, merely, of a heat-oppressed brain. There might even be political demagoguery at play here, which implies willful twisting of facts to gain advantage.
Let’s then consider Khan’s statement about the coup and its supposed celebration.
When Khan drew criticism from all quarters, his supporters said that the statement was taken out of context—i.e., Khan wasn’t supporting a coup but simply stating a fact. They pointed to the 1999 coup. That people in Turkey came out and put down the putschists because President Erdogan and his AKP have delivered in that country, something that Mian Nawaz Sharif, tainted with corruption, has simply failed to do.
This defense, as should be obvious, is worse than Khan’s original statements. First, Khan has probably slept between ’99 and 2016 and having woken up, like the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, can’t figure out what has changed in the past 17 years. Much has, though more could have. Second, Khan himself had tried to be prime minister during Musharraf’s time—he denies it but Musharraf is on record about it—before he distanced himself from a military regime.
Third, addressing a political rally and asking for votes while asserting that people would welcome a coup, a decidedly unconstitutional and non-electoral exercise, means not just the failure of the Sharif government but of the entire political class, Khan included. He cannot ask for peoples’ votes, which can have meaning only within a constitutional-electoral system, while asserting that the system would be rejected by the people if the Army intervened.
Fourth, the comparison with Turkey shows clearly that Khan doesn’t know much about either that country’s history or what’s been happening there since the AKP took over. While it’s correct that the AKP performed well and impressively until 2010, despite Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies, the last six years have seen Erdogan unravel much of the good work his team did since the party came to power.
Khan might also like to look into and read up on massive corruption charges involving Erdogan, his sons and some of Erdogan’s cronies. He needs to read up on AKP’s alliance with Fethullah Gulen’s cultist organization and how the Gulenists were used by Erdogan to undermine the Kemalists in the judiciary, the military, the police and the education system. Erdogan has also created a strong cadre of his party, the youth that took to the streets on the night of the putsch and were involved in lynching soldiers after the security forces had surrendered. In trying to weaken the Turkish military, Erdogan has successfully created factions within the organization.
That was/is his way of clipping the wings of a praetorian Turkish General Staff. Some would even applaud the strategy. But the question is, can a fighting force which is lynched by the people retain the confidence needed to fight an external enemy? The real puzzle of civil-military relations, as posited by Peter D. Feaver is the challenge “to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorize.”
The challenge is about reconciling, not weakening and factionalizing the military. That is a recipe for disaster. Khan obviously missed that about Turkey.
In his desire to present Sharif as tainted, Khan conveniently ignored all the allegations against Erdogan. He also ignored the fact that if he were in opposition in Turkey and had resorted to calumnious statements against Erdogan, he wouldn’t be—despite Turkey’s ‘democracy’—roaming around a free man. By now, Erdogan would have got him by the neck even if that required changing the constitution.
Khan also ignored the fact that on the night of the coup, despite what Erdogan has done, the opposition, including the Kurds, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and even the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) supported him. That’s way more than Khan can claim in support of democracy here, a system of which he and his party are beneficiaries. Instead, he chose to tell us that people would welcome a coup. What’s his benchmark for saying that? Within the system—regardless of the minuses of it—the PMLN, the PPP and the PTI have had their share of votes and seats and governments. Has Khan conducted a referendum to ascertain peoples’ aspirations vis-à-vis a military coup?
Because, as the electoral exercise goes—the only constitutional way of judging what the people want, flawed though it might be—peoples’ participation and their choices have repeatedly been made clear. In fact, the military itself has, on more than one occasion, dispelled the impression that it has any intention of violating its constitutional oath.
None of this means or should be construed to mean that our current system is working fine or that the PMLN is the best thing that has happened to this country. Far from it. The system needs a drastic overhaul; it thrives on captive votes in rural areas; it is illiberal and mostly unresponsive to the very people on whose votes it survives; the prime minister has not covered himself in glory and has failed to strengthen the very system he has piggybacked to the highest office the third time; policymaking is a royal mess et cetera. The list of what needs to be done is long.
This is precisely where Khan’s party was needed. Khan had the opportunity in KP to give us an alternative to the Sharifs. He needed to understand that PTI must finally act like a political party and not simply a frothing-from-the-mouth, perennially agitating mob. Sadly, thus far that has not happened. Here too he might want to study the rise of Erdogan and the AKP: How performance in Istanbul and at the local levels created for the AKP the space the party exploited at the national level. While Khan and the PTI have been around for 20 years, his party’s actual rise began in 2011. That’s just five years. That’s a mere 100-meter sprint in political terms.
The longer-run is a marathon, Mr. Khan. There’s a long way to go, still. It doesn’t behoove you to be pejorative toward the very system that is your only chance to greatness.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.