The U.S.-Style Liberal–Conservative Divide Doesn’t Translate to Pakistan

by Reihan Salam

While reading the Washington Post’s coverage of Pakistani politics, I noticed that reporters Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain describe Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement as “liberal.” I’ll admit that this surprised me a bit, and I thought I’d explain why.

First, the conservative-liberal divide doesn’t really apply to Pakistani politics. There, parties are separated along two axes: ethnic ties and relationship to the military.

The parties do, of course, have official ideological platforms. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was founded as a socialist party. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML-N — the faction of the PML headed by Pakistan’s recently deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif — is technically a center-right party. And Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement (known in Pakistan as PTI) was founded as a centrist party, in that it would oppose both of the above. The ideologies of the main parties, however, have never been as important as their ethnic affiliations. In elections, PML takes Punjab, PPP takes Sindh, BNP takes Baluchistan, and so on. PTI does not have an ethnic base, which is why, through careful tailoring of messages, it appealed to both urbanites who had grown disillusioned of the two main parties and, at the same time, to Islamists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it has the biggest presence in any national or regional assembly.

The second dividing line is relationship to the military, which gets complicated. PPP and PML-N both claim to be staunch democrats now, but they have been somewhat supportive of military rule when it interrupted a government headed by the other party. PTI likewise purports to be fully in favor of democracy, but there have been persistent rumors that the military has backed it as a way to weaken the PPP and PML-N. It is hard to say what the real story is, as is the case with just about all things relating to Pakistan. But Khan has acknowledged that Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former military ruler, brought him into politics and there are some PTI policies that line up with what the military wants, such as talks with the Pakistani Taliban.

All of which is to say that though Imran Khan might personally be a liberal, the PTI is not accurately described as a liberal political movement, nor does it make much sense to think of any party in Pakistan in those terms.

Why does any of this matter? When a particular political movement is characterized as “liberal” in the pages of the Washington Post, it serves as an implicit seal of approval. The message is that here we have a party committed to the rule of law, representative government, and protecting the rights of religious minorities, among other good things. But is that really true of PTI? The jury is still out.

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