Against the Norm? Populism and the Coronavirus in Pakistan

09.02.2020 | Articles | Dr. S Akbar Zaidi

In the last decade, the pandemic of populism, both of the left and the right, has spread far and wide across continents, across different types of countries of varying levels of ‘development’. From Venezuela and Brazil in South America, to Mexico and the USA in North America, right across South Asia engulfing India and Pakistan, into South East Asia affecting Indonesia and the Philippines populist politicians have risen to power. Even in Europe, where bastions of democracy such as the UK, where Brexit has reformed and re-engraved identities for an island cut adrift from a continent, and in young democracies across Eastern Europe and Russia, populism has become an electoral choice. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic since February this year, has affected all countries, albeit, quite differently. It may have given political space to those countries referred to as ‘populist’, allowing authoritarian tendencies to be strengthened, as ‘leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.’ In fact, populist leaders have been accused of ‘exploit[ing] the pandemic for political purposes.’ It has been argued that it is not just electoral politics but democracy itself which is under threat and is seen to be faltering ‘facing a decline’.

Yet, surprisingly, the pandemic in Pakistan – the fifth most populous country in the world with a population of 220 million and thirteenth in the list of coronavirus cases, has not had the sort of authoritarian resurgence on account of the pandemic. This is not to suggest that Pakistan has not had an increase in authoritarianism and anti-democratic tendencies in recent years or is a bastion of democracy, but that the pandemic, unlike many other countries where populist governments hold power and has resulted in authoritarianism, in Pakistan has had different political consequences. In many ways, Pakistan has bucked the trend associated with such regimes. Before we examine the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences on democratization in Pakistan, it is best to start with a recent history of the state of democracy in Pakistan itself.