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Opinion Columnists 19 Aug 2019 Do populist leaders ...

Do populist leaders pose bigger risk to democracy?

Published Aug 19, 2019, 12:16 am IST
Updated Aug 19, 2019, 12:16 am IST
Trump has repeatedly ignored constitutional restraints on conflict of interest by apparently using his office to enrich himself further.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (Photo: File)
 Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (Photo: File)

After years spent on trying to climb up the greasy pole to power, Imran Khan has finally made it, thanks to a little help from his friends.

But now that he has reached the top, does he think it was worth the effort? He is constrained by so many factors that despite his rhetoric and ambitions, he has little freedom of action. The biggest hurdle, of course, is the fact that Pakistan is broke, and even with the IMF bailout, there is nothing in the kitty to pay for his promises. So millions of his young unemployed supporters will have to wait a while longer for the jobs he promised to create.


The next major problem he faces — which is also a big crutch — lies in the fact that the security establishment dominates major areas of foreign policy, and, increasingly, the economy. It is also seen as controlling domestic politics.

Next, there is the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that has transferred a significant chunk of federal power to the provinces. So, for example, if Khan wanted to modernise our educational system — an entirely laudable goal — the provinces can thwart him by insisting on their right to regulate education. Provinces also obtain a fixed percentage of federal funds, reducing Islamabad’s share of the revenue pie.


Despite his claimed success in Washington recently, the reality is that the US currently needs Pakistan’s help to end their 18-year presence in Afghanistan. The recently concluded talks with the Afghan Taliban promises to provide the Americans a face-saving exit, and until the pullout is completed, Trump has every reason to keep Pakistan onside. While this does not translate into a return to the Bush-Musharraf era, it will probably trigger a flood of warm words. There might be some secondhand arms left over from the Afghan conflict as it would be far cheaper to hand them to Pakistan than cart them all the way back to the US. But our immediate requirement is for greenbacks, and congressional support for a resumption of aid is unlikely.


In this disconnect between promises and delivery, Imran Khan is not alone. Boris Johnson has been going around the country pledging vast sums to every sector from health to education to agriculture. Considering the looming fiscal meltdown from a no-deal Brexit, it is clear that these promises are part of an undeclared electoral campaign. Other populist leaders like Putin, Erdogan and Duterte do not permit any institutional objections to thwart their ambitions. When Nawaz Sharif was in power in the 1990s, and decided to have motorways built, mostly in Punjab, he was told by the finance ministry that there was not enough money for the project. His reported response was: “Did Shershah Suri need the approval of his finance ministry to build the Grand Trunk Road from Lahore to Calcutta?”


Populists prefer to shrug off democratic niceties in order to please their supporters. Thus, Narendra Modi has abruptly changed the status quo in Kashmir to keep his BJP base happy.

These leaders see the opposition and the media as hurdles that can be brushed aside or ignored rather than a part of constitutional checks and balances to executive power. Instead of negotiating with them and accepting their role, populists try and bulldoze them. In these efforts, Khan’s government has been almost entirely successful.

But beyond testing the limits of their own power, they test the limits of democracy itself. Trump has repeatedly ignored constitutional restraints on conflict of interest by apparently using his office to enrich himself further. His appointment of his daughter and son-in-law as advisers ignores the convention against nepotism.


Khan displayed contempt for parliament by cursing it during a public rally. His attendance record in the National Assembly has been abysmal since his election as a member several years ago, and is not much better now.

Trump regularly laces his speech with anti-media rants and accusations of “fake news”. These examples of anti-democratic behaviour by populist politicians resonate among their followers who crave strong leaders in uncertain times. But these same leaders put democracy at risk.

By arrangement with Dawn