One of the casualties of the hyper-partisan turn taken by contemporary political debate is meaningful and substantive debate of the actual issues being confronted by the people of Pakistan. Online and in the traditional media, what passes for political discourse is little more than superficial point-scoring; paradoxically, the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of platforms from which to be heard has meant that rather than subjecting the powerful to greater scrutiny and criticism, they are instead pilloried for every minor transgression that is picked up and amplified even as more major concerns simply disappear from the agenda. Hence the seemingly relentless attention that is paid, for example, to the otherwise banal pronouncements of government and opposition politicians alike who trade in insults and innuendo knowing full well that their words will be picked up and cheered by their supporters. One day the newspapers will be discussing the latest bon mot uttered by Sheikh Rashid, the next day they will be poring over a provocative statement by Marriyam Aurangzeb, only to replace that with a forensic analysis of a speech made by Asif Zardari the following day. Sadly, in all such cases, the words uttered rarely merit the time spent listening to them, let alone the hours wasted on understanding them. On social media, pictures of Imran Khan and his ministers will be picked apart as friends and enemies read them like tea leaves, searching for visual cues that cast the government in a positive or negative light, even as older speeches are dug up to make a point about the frankly inevitable flip-flopping that accompanies any ascent to power. This can all be entertaining at times, but the truth is that it becomes tedious over time; like any circus, it is an amusing diversion, an escapist spectacle detracting from a sober consideration of real-world problems.

On the supply side of the equation, it is not too difficult to see why politicians themselves engage in such empty discourse. Other than the fact that many of the leading lights of Pakistan’s political system are probably not particularly deep thinkers, the deeply non-ideological nature of the country’s mainstream parties and the aversion to politics that often characterises the populace, both of which are arguably amongst authoritarianism’s most enduring legacies in this country, undoubtedly contribute to fostering a culture of debate that caters to the lowest common denominator in the most unproductive way. When there is lack of capacity and interest when it comes to formulating and discussing ideas, politics degenerates into mud-slinging and name-calling. This is perhaps doubly true when such a strategy appears to succeed by charging up a given politician or party’s base; does it really matter is Imran Khan appears to lack a clear vision for the country as long as he can continue to undermine and humiliate his political opponents on television?

This is not, of course, a tendency that is limited to Pakistan. Across the world, the right-wing populists who have popped up in the United States, Europe, South America, and so on, all share this in common; they cast themselves as the true representatives of the ‘people’, relying on the cultivation of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mindset, castigating the media, activists, intellectuals, and their opponents in mainstream politics, as barriers to change. Following from this, their cultivation of support often relies on nothing more substantive than the use of outright lies and falsehoods to reaffirm the iniquity of their opponents, even as they move to consolidate power through institutional measures involving, but not limited to, curbing dissent, clipping the powers of those arms of government that could hold them to account, and imposing constraints on rival parties and other actors. Again, the distraction created by targeting imagined enemies and reducing discussion to an exchange of insults, threats, and insinuations simply gives those who indulge in this exercise the opportunity to make more substantive changes absent any serious scrutiny.

There is one more thing that right-wing populists have in common, and that is the cultivation of the belief that they represent insurgents tackling a moribund political establishment and status quo. The PTI is a case in point, and the party has more similarities with Erdogan’s AKP and the Trump’s Republicans than it might like to admit; with its anti-corruption mantra and relentless targeting of its opponents, it certainly seems to be walking the same path as some of its more authoritarian contemporaries around the world. However, what is more important to recognize is that leaders and parties such as these get away with what they do precisely because those who are opposed to them often fail to truly expose the lie upon which their political fortunes are built; they are not anti-establishment, they do not represent the ‘people’, and they will not make the radical changes needed to truly shift the status quo in a progressive direction.

People vote for right-wing populists because there is genuine distaste for a political and economic system that has, across the world, impoverished and punished the poor even as the elite have gotten richer and more powerful than ever before. Whatever your thoughts may be about the PTI and Imran Khan, it is clearly not the case that Nawaz Sharif and those who preceded him, including the country’s praetorian gatekeepers, succeeded in delivering the kind of governance that put the people first. Instead, they have left behind a legacy of cartels and oligopolies monopolizing the levers of politics and the economy in a country where rising GDP growth rates have been accompanied by stagnant social indicators in areas such as health and education. The people want change and will obviously support those who promise it.

The problem, of course, is that those who make such promises rarely keep them and here, the significance of Pakistan’s superficial level of political debate becomes more evident. Elsewhere in the world, progressive voices that articulate and could potentially deliver radical reform are often sidelined as they are marginalized by pro-establishment forces defending a moribund ideological consensus; take, for example, the ongoing paroxysms of the Democratic Party in the United States as it fights to contain the radical impulses of the ‘democratic socialists’ who have started to swell its ranks in greater numbers. Closer to home, the absence of any such debate in the first place raises its own complications. As long as those who both support and oppose the powerful in Pakistan do not rise about petty point-scoring, true change will remain as elusive as ever.


The writer is an assistant professor of political.