The July 2017 decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court to convict Nawaz Sharif for his part in the Panama Papers scandal should not come as a huge shock. Since the country’s inception seventy years ago, every single ruler has been forced out of office prematurely. The reasons have been multitudinous: military intervention, assassination and so forth. The surprise lies in the fact that a nation so numbed to the rotting corpse of corruption at the core of its political institutions should decide to hold its head of state accountable.
Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League, has long positioned itself as the voice of the centre-right. What is interesting is that one of the protagonists in his downfall could be about to step into the vacuum he leaves behind. Step forward the populist hero of the moment, Imran Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Khan has consistently demonstrated he is free from the financial sleaze that permeates Pakistani politics. His financial dealings have been notably and uniquely transparent since his cricketing days. But is he really the answer to Pakistan’s prayers?
That depends on whether the alternative to rule by right-wing elites is the ushering in of right-wing populism. In Pakistan, populism is usually associated with Awaam, the Urdu word for ‘the people’. Pakistan also has a popular saying, ‘consider the voice of people, voice of God.’ Politicians, political commentators and religious leaders all routinely use the term Awaam to refer to an entity which harbours the same emotions, hopes and opinions as themselves. Could this relate to the concept of ‘popular agency’, with the people proving a positive mobilising force, instrumental in building a democratic society? Or are the Awaam an emancipatory body that will change the status quo only through conflict and by creating ‘radical democracy’?