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New Pakistan Gov’t Marks Return of “Bourgeois Old Guard” as Jailed Imran Khan Looms Large

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In Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in Monday as prime minister for a second time, days after newly elected members of Parliament were seated amid protests by lawmakers from the party of ousted and jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Sharif will lead a coalition government after none of the major parties won a majority of parliamentary seats in February’s election, when Khan supporters accused the military of election tampering. Regardless of actual policy, Khan’s enduring popularity as an anti-establishment figure comes from “a young, disaffected population, a set of regimes that historically does not deliver, and underlying structural crises that just get worse,” says Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, associate professor of political economy at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. “That’s why I think you have this groundswell of opinion which is both anti-domestic elite and also anti-foreign elite.”

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StoryFeb 09, 2024“Political Crisis Will Continue”: Close Contest in Pakistan Amid Election Crackdown
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show in Pakistan, where Shehbaz Sharif was sworn in Monday as prime minister for a second time, days after newly elected members of Parliament were seated amid protests by lawmakers from the party of ousted and jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Sharif is expected to form a new government after none of the major parties won a majority of parliamentary seats in February’s election. Khan supporters have accused the military of election tampering. On X, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad congratulated Shehbaz on his, quote, “assumption of office.”

AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, over 30 members of Congress sent an open letter to President Biden asking him to withhold U.S. recognition of the new Pakistani government until a, quote, “thorough, transparent, and credible investigation of election interference has been conducted,” unquote. On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller was asked to respond to the letter.

MATT MILLER: So, a few things. Number one, there was a competitive election in Pakistan. Millions and millions of people made their voices heard. A new government has been formed, and we will, of course, work with that government. At the same time, there were reported irregularities. There have been challenges brought by political parties to the results, and we want to see those challenges and those irregularities fully investigated.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Islamabad by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, associate professor of political economy at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. He’s also affiliated with Pakistan Workers Party.

We thank you so much for being with us. Can you say the name of your university? I’m sorry I mispronounced it.

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: It’s Quaid-i-Azam University.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah. So, Professor Akhtar, can you talk about the National Assembly electing Shehbaz Sharif as a the country’s new prime minister, who he is, and what’s really taken place in this election?

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: Yeah. Shehbaz Sharif, as you just noted in your intro, is a second-time prime minister. He was prime minister just most recently between April ’22 and the end of his regime around the end of ’23. And he hails from the Sharif family, which is part of the bourgeois old guard, which has been in and out of power for the best part of about 40 years now.

And as you also noted in your intro, this election was marred — is sort of an understatement — by rigging and by vote tampering. And, in fact, even after the election results came out, in which Imran Khan’s party, clearly, by any objective measure, won the most seats, what we saw was a systematic process of changing the outcomes to reduce Imran’s votes — or, seats by about 25 to 30 seats.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Aasim, could you explain the PTI and Imran Khan’s popularity? I mean, he has been imprisoned. There are multiple cases against him. And yet all these people voted for independent candidates aligned with him. What explains that?

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: Yeah, well, of course, again, some of your listeners will know that Imran Khan was himself in power, was prime minister between 2018 and 2022. And, you know, both during that period, prior to that, before that, he’s appealed, in the vein of many, I’d say, strongmen, you know, sort of right-of-center strongmen, around the world in recent — in the last decade or so, to, I think, particularly in Pakistan’s case, a very young population disaffected with these institutions of formal representative democracy. And I think that that, and, of course, having been jailed and, in his supporters’ eyes, you know, unjustifiably removed from power in 2022, and replaced by the very same Sharif and also another old family, the Bhuttos, that have been in power intermittently, and, of course, all at the behest of Pakistan’s preeminent political force, which is the Army, I think that combination of factors — a young, disaffected population, a regime — a set of regimes that historically does not deliver, and then underlying structural crises that just get worse — and I think that contributes to Imran Khan’s growing popularity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aasim, explain. You said regimes have systematically not responded to the needs of ordinary Pakistanis, but explain what exactly did Imran Khan do for the people or, for that matter — you’ve written about this — marginal — so-called marginal areas in Pakistan, from Balochistan to Waziristan? What were his policies?

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: Yeah. I mean, in practice, in principle, that’s exactly right. It’s not as if Khan’s time in power was marked by any major departures. And I think the rhetoric that Khan brings and sort of this perception that he is an outsider — and that’s why I made reference to, I think, many other similar examples around the world, not to mention what you are dealing with in the United States again with the renewed appeal of Trumpism, after four years of Biden’s, you know, liberal imperialism. So, you have this cycle, and Imran Khan was very much part of that cycle, and in a country which is ravaged by debt, by climate breakdown events. Some of your listeners will know it was only less than two years ago that one-third of Pakistan was ravaged by floods. Thirty-five million people were displaced from their homes.

So, Khan didn’t really do anything that different. But I think what ended up happening was because he was removed from office prior to his term being completed, I think that then reinforced that already existing sort of sense and perception amongst his supporters that, look, he was trying, he was going to get there eventually, he was going to change the system, but he wasn’t allowed to do so. And that rhetoric then ratcheted up a further notch with this wave of repression against him and his party.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last August, The Intercept revealed the existence of a classified Pakistani cable that outlined how the U.S. State Department had encouraged the Pakistani government to remove former Prime Minister Imran Khan from office in March of 2022, just weeks after Russia had invaded Ukraine. The document stated the U.S. objected to Khan’s neutral stance on the war. According to the memo, one State Department official warned Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S. that, quote, “all will be forgiven in Washington” if Khan is removed. The U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu, then went on to say, “Otherwise, I think it will be tough going ahead.” Of course, Imran Khan was in Moscow with Putin when Russia invaded Ukraine. So, talk, overall, about the significance of U.S. support for Pakistan. And how much does it determine what the Pakistani government does or the direction it goes in?

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: Yeah, look, I think that there’s — and again, this also contributes to this sense amongst Khan supporters. There’s a long history. You know, Pakistan has been ruled by the military for about half of its existence. I mean, even when generals are not in the seat of government, they are the de facto sort of, in a sense, power that be. And, you know, three long periods of dictatorship, twice during the Cold War, under Generals Ayub Khan and Zia-ul-Haq, and then under the “war on terror” regime with General Musharraf, all of these regimes were fully backed by Washington.

And so, you know, the fact that — you know, whether or not Imran Khan was explicitly removed by the Americans is by the by. What matters is that there is this long history. And that reinforces this perception that the Americans come in, do what they want, you know, remove who they want, and put into power who they want, obviously via their primary sort of go-between, which is the Army. And that’s why I think you have this groundswell of opinion, which is both anti-domestic elite and also anti-foreign elite. And, you know, for what it’s worth, this is something that we have to pay attention to. It’s another matter altogether that Pakistan, like so many other countries, is missing a progressive left that can tap into that sentiment. And that’s why I think you have strongmen like Khan acquiring so much popularity.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Aasim, we just have a minute, but is it your sense — of course, PTI supporters, Imran Khan’s party supporters, believe this about him, but was he really an anti-imperial president — prime minister?

AASIM SAJJAD AKHTAR: Look, I mean, you know, from our perspective, to be anti-American or to be anti-Western is different from being anti-imperialist.

And you asked earlier about what he did in power. I mean, in practice, you know, there were very few policy steps to change Pakistan’s sort of foreign policy regime, its larger militarized sort of policy matrix. So, I think, for us, the challenge for us on the left is: How do we take this burgeoning sentiment amongst the young population and deepen it in more progressive directions? Of course, that’s a hard task, but I don’t see any other way for us to break the cycle between a “liberal” center that keeps creating, paving the way for far-right figures to become popular and come to power.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, associate professor at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, also affiliated with Pakistan’s left-wing Awami Workers Party, thank you for joining us.

AMY GOODMAN: And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz, Deena Guzder, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud and Hana Elias. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude, Dennis McCormick. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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“Political Crisis Will Continue”: Close Contest in Pakistan Amid Election Crackdown

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