The former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan has been holding rallies after his unceremonious ouster from power in April this year. These rallies are taking place with frantic frequency, as Khan continues to hop from one city to another, blasting ‘corrupt politicians’ and the US for engineering his ouster. He has also begun to point the finger at his erstwhile supporters — the military establishment (ME) — accusing them of betraying his government by ‘allowing’ his opponents to throw him out through a no-confidence vote in the parliament.
Khan formed a coalition government by winning a razor-thin majority in the 2018 elections. Before this, he was allegedly launched as a project by the ME to undermine the electoral prowess of the country’s two largest mainstream parties, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
The ME went out of its way to aid Khan in developing a constituency for his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Khan was successful in doing this, largely finding support from ‘educated’ middle income groups.
One of the ways he did this was by organising a barrage of protest rallies that were keenly covered by news channels, especially by those whose content was designed by ‘pro-establishment’ TV anchors. Khan became an effective speech-maker. His speeches were not smooth rhetorical flourishes. They were more about crude populist posturing that gave the otherwise subdued urban ‘educated classes’ their first real taste of populist politics.
Former PM Imran Khan’s colourful rallies may draw large, boisterous crowds, but do big rallies necessarily translate into electoral success?
Khan mixed fact with fiction, and dangled Utopian illusions. He tore into the PML-N and the PPP, accusing them of being anti-Pakistan and corrupt, and also wanting to change the ‘Islamic’ character of the country’s constitution. For the more insightful folk, these speeches were enough to identify Khan’s demagogic mindset. But not to the ME. It was just too invested in him to notice (or confess) anything problematic.
Khan was a disaster as PM. And as public restlessness against this disaster increased, the ME was pushed on the back foot. It had supported his regime so blatantly that people began to criticise this once ‘sacred’ institution more than they did Khan’s failing regime. The ME finally pulled itself back, providing a besieged opposition enough space to oust Khan. Khan was livid.
So, he has gone back to doing what he does best: get on a stage and blast his enemies, both real and imagined. The frequency with which he did this before he came to power, and the frequency with which he is doing it after his fall, were/are calculated to hog as much electronic and social media space as possible.
Secondly, his narrative — which now claims that his government was not allowed to flourish by the ME, and was then overthrown by the US and the opposition parties — is once again attracting the imagination of his urban constituency and of the electronic media. This media is sustained by advertising revenues gained from commercial enterprises whose core consumers are largely the classes that are found in Khan’s constituency.
Some journalists often describe a Khan rally as a ‘power show’. This is a uniquely Pakistani term. Just what it means, is never clear. Does it mean that the rally drew large crowds, which in turn translates into proving the popularity of the show-man? Perhaps. But does it?
Analysts such as Najam Sethi suggest that, by upping the ante of his rhetoric against the ME, Khan has somewhat been successful in creating a wobble in the ME’s unity of command. Sethi believes that Khan’s attacks on the ME during his recent rallies have paralysed the ME leaders, some of whom are still invested in salvaging the Khan project.
But even if Khan’s rallies are causing confusion in the ranks of his former backers, are his ‘power shows’ also designed to bolster Khan’s vote bank?
According to three reporters covering his recent rallies for three different newspapers, the rallies are still largely attracting folk from urban middle income groups who voted for his party in 2018. Khan’s PTI won 31.82 percent of the total vote cast in the 2018 elections. But most observers believed that the elections were ‘engineered’ by the ME to give PTI at least a simple majority. PTI had received only 16.92 percent of the total vote cast in 2013.
Considering what the aforementioned reporters told me, my assessment is that if there is an election today, PTI will not be able to garner more than 25 percent of the total vote cast.
A 1976 study in the US on political rallies concluded that rallies attract a large percentage of persons who are not members of the featured candidate’s political party. Audience motivations for rally attendance are complex, but reasons related to the excitement of the event were surprisingly prominent (K.R. Sanders, L.L Kaid, in Central States Speech Journal, 1981).
This is why, at this point in time, Khan, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto will always attract bigger crowds than any other leader from their respective parties. Their charisma, and the flamboyant shape that their rallies often take, are also likely to attract people who are not necessarily their supporters.
A 2020 study by J.M. Snyder Jr. and H. Yousaf (for the National Bureau of Economic Research) suggests that, compared to mainstream political parties, populist outfits and leaders find it more important to hold rallies. Khan is an outright populist. As a politician, he is most at home when talking to crowds from a podium. According to Snyder and Yousaf, populists are an unorganised lot, so to them, “mass rallies offer an emotive substitute for substantive political organisation and engagement.”
Snyder and Yousaf’s study provides evidence that rallies are a more important tool for populist candidates. Their success depends on connecting with voters via rallies. But Snyder and Yousaf conclude that the effects of such rallies are largely short-lived. This finding might also help account for the fact that, while many populists hold rallies frequently, once in power, they may be restricted by time and position to address rallies. This can be disconcerting to them, because populists need to feel their ‘success’ through the energy of a live crowd, more than through actual policies implemented through bureaucrats.
Therefore, populists score better as fiery opposition figures than they do as rulers. But as Snyder and Yousaf suggest, and as did Sanders and Kaid, energetic, colourful and boisterous rallies do not necessarily turn into big votes.
First of all, encouraging rallies by populist leaders do not necessarily translate into constituency-level wins by their deputies, which often hinge on local politics. Secondly, the rallies might be able to retain the already converted but, on most occasions, to the non-converted, they are nothing more than entertainment or curiosity events.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 22nd, 2022