Ammar Ali Jan (Haqooq-e-Khalq Party, Pakistan): ‘This punishing economic system fuels hatred against the ruling parties — and Imran Khan has been the beneficiary of this anger’

Ammar Ali Jan

[Editor’s note: Ammar Ali Jan will be speaking at Ecosocialism 2024, June 28–30, Boorloo/Perth, Australia. For more information on the conference visit]

Pakistan’s new National Assembly was sworn in on February 29 in the face of mass protests by supporters of former prime minister Imran Khan, who allege the February 8 elections were stolen from his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) subsequently formed a coalition government, electing Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister on March 3.

But PTI has branded the two parties “vote-thieves”, noting it won more seats than any other party (93 compared to 75 for PML-N and 54 for PPP), despite a harsh military crackdown and its candidates being forced to stand as “independents”. And at least one senior election commissioner has backed PTI claims of vote rigging, having confessed to being forced to overturn the result in Rawalpindi, Punjab province. 

Amid this volatile situation, Pakistani socialist Ammar Ali Jan of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (People’s Rights Party, HKP) spoke with Federico Fuentes for LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal about the elections, the role Khan and PTI play in Pakistani politics, and his campaign as the HKP's first election candidate. 

Could you begin by telling us what the vote for the PTI reflects? 

For the past 9-10 months, there has been a severe crackdown on Khan’s party based on a sedition case against some party leaders. When Khan was arrested on May 9, the Pakistani state accused his party of trying to incite a coup and attacking military installations. This has since become a cover for a widespread crackdown on political opponents, particularly those from PTI. 

In effect, an undeclared ban was placed on PTI activities, which meant the party was not able to campaign in these elections. Furthermore, the Supreme Court and the Electoral Commission stopped Khan’s party from using its electoral symbol on the ballot paper. This was important for two reasons: one, because of low literacy rates, symbols are very important when people come to vote; and two, because it meant all PTI candidates had to run as independents with a different symbol. This made it difficult to tell who was a PTI candidate. 

These were the extraordinary circumstances under which the party had to conduct its elections campaign. And yet PTI emerged as the largest party in parliament. 

Two things were very clear with these elections. The first was that people voted against the establishment and the military — they do not want the military to interfere in Pakistani politics. Remember, [before falling out with the military] Khan was brought into power by the military. During the time he governed with the military’s support, he lost several byelections to opposition figures because the mood of the people was anti-establishment and anti-military. In the past five years we have seen a clear trend of people voting against anybody who aligns too closely with the military. 

The second thing was the impact of the economic crisis. Back when Khan was in power, the opposition parties — the PML-N and PPP — criticised him for high inflation and selling the country out to the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. Khan’s popularity was undermined by the high inflation and unemployment that Pakistan suffered between 2018-22. 

But when the vote of no confidence [against Khan] happened in [April] 2022, and the PML-N and PPP came to power, what we got was neoliberalism on steroids. By liberalising price structures, prices doubled and in some cases quadrupled. Food inflation reached about 40% and hunger became a very real concern. On top of that, we had the devastating floods of August-September 2022. Despite that climate catastrophe, neither the IMF nor PML-N/PPP politicians pursued any structural changes to the economic system. 

Instead, the IMF demanded even harsher austerity from the government after the floods, which was when the government liberalised fuel prices. Yet they refused to touch the elite’s subsidies: according to the UNDP [United Nations Development Programme], US$17.4 billion is given away annually in subsidies to the country's elites. This at a time when 40% of the country lives below the poverty line. 

This kind of punishing economic system fueled hatred against the ruling parties — and Khan was the beneficiary of this anger during this election cycle.

How stable is the incoming coalition government’s mandate likely to be?

It will be a very, very unstable government. This is partly because the state has lost legitimacy due to the election rigging: first, by not allowing PTI to campaign; then by changing the results; and now with the authoritarian measures they are using to repress any kind of dissent. 

There is also a loss of legitimacy of political parties, especially of PPP and PML-N, which have completely capitulated to the military establishment and let go of any semblance of democratic behaviour or principles. 

Furthermore, the economic crisis is too great for these people to manage, especially when they are unwilling to touch the subsidies to the elites. What we have is socialism for the rich, with billions being spent each year to subsidise the elites and protect their profits while their losses are socialised. This is unsustainable. 

Pakistan is running completely on credit from international financial institutions, all of which is spent on protecting the elites and funding their luxurious lifestyles. Then, when the money has to be returned, it is done so through inflation and cutting social spending. In the end, it is the people who pay the costs of the decadent lifestyles of the elites. 

It will be very difficult to create political or economic stability given this crisis of legitimacy and the scale of the financial crisis.

Khan came to power with the backing of the military, yet today is seen as a kind of anti-establishment outsider. What do Khan and PTI represent in Pakistani politics today? Who is his social base? 

PTI is fundamentally a centre-right party, if not a more right-wing party. While 10-15 years ago only the corporate elites were with Khan, today PTI’s social base also includes the new emerging middle class. 

There are certain things about Khan that make him very palatable to the kind of public opinion that has been manufactured over the past 30 years in Pakistan: he was the military’s favourite guy; he hated all politicians; he was a Westernised man who loved talking about his spiritual awakening and how Islam was central to his politics and life. 

He represents all these contradictions that the new middle class has emerged with and identifies with: someone who was successful on the world stage yet maintains their religious essence; someone who remained loyal to the state and the military and stayed silent on military corruption, but hates corrupt politicians. He criticises the US, but appointed an IMF employee who was responsible for austerity in Egypt under General Sisi as the Central Bank governor, as well as a former World Bank employee who had been in the PPP government as his finance minister. 

Basically, what we have is the rhetoric of revolution, of change, of overthrowing the system, combined with a content that is about reproducing the status quo in terms of the military establishment, the IMF, religious fundamentalism and not touching the elites. There is a large gap between the form, which is very revolutionary and which Imran Khan has mastered, and the content, which is very conservative. 

This is similar to what we have seen with the global wave of right-wing movements. They have a lot of rhetoric about change but, beneath it all, are about reproducing the worst aspects of the existing system. 

Even now, Khan is willing to talk with the military but says he will not talk to the main political parties. We also dislike those parties — we know that corruption is rampant in them. But compared to the military, which has been running the state for the past 70 years and has right now jailed Khan, you would expect him to be more willing to talk to political parties. Yet he is not going to. 

So, the situation we have is one where we have to defend the rights of a right-wing party and fight back against all forms of authoritarianism, because democratic struggles are important for Pakistan’s struggle for socialism. That is why we have defended the right of PTI to hold election rallies and protests, and opposed the crackdown against his party. But we do so without having any illusions in Khan or his party.

The general picture you have described is similar to what the left faces in a lot of other countries, though obviously with its national particularities. You have described a situation in which you have a traditional political centre whose legitimacy is collapsing very quickly, a rising right-wing force that presents itself as an anti-establishment — even if this is just in form, not content — and a left trying to navigate through these turbulent waters. How has the left more generally responded to Khan and PTI? Is this an issue of debate?

It is an issue of debate. Among the left, there are those who feel we should not engage at all with the PTI and have described it as fascist. I am not one of those. I think it is too early to say whether the PTI will go completely in that direction. Right now, it is more a centre-right or right phenomenon rather than far right. 

Another important issue is that they are confronting the military. If we say that one of the principal contradictions of the Pakistani state is the military, then we must keep sight of that and not look at civilian political parties as the main enemy while we have this entire quasi-monarchical structure embedded within the military. 

A third issue is that PTI has politicised a lot of young people, even if it has done so from a right-wing perspective. It is interesting to note that a lot of the middle class students who support us, who follow us on Twitter and come to our study circles, also support PTI. 

There is this kind of ideological confusion that exists today. A friend of mine likes to say that in Pakistan, “people are ideologically promiscuous”. This is because the old rigid ideological hierarchies broke down a long time ago — we have not had ideological politics for maybe 40-50 years. 

So people just think: “OK, Imran Khan is resisting the system. The Haqooq-e-Khalq Party is resisting the system. I love resistance, so both of them are awesome.” That kind of thinking is very common. There is this feeling that people like myself should just join PTI. They do not understand that our ideological anchorage is completely different; that we come from completely different places. 

The good thing about all this is that both sides are open to a dialogue, and that a large number of young people are looking for new ideas. That is something we have not seen for decades. Many of the young people who follow us on social media and show up to our lectures are PTI supporters. We should not dismiss them. If we dismiss them, they will simply close the door on us. 

The reality is that people from the centrist parties are not going to leave and join us; they are tied to these parties through clientelism and patronage networks. But these new young people are not part of patronage networks, and are excited by new kinds of politics. If we can give them a more solid ideological basis for the rage that they feel against the system, I think we will win a lot of them over, as we have in the past. In fact, many students who are now active HKP members were previously PTI members.

So, we have to remain open and recognise that, in the absence of ideological debate, people will gravitate to whatever form is most attractive. But they can be won to our side if we remain consistent to our principles. The worst thing we can do is dismiss this new consciousness and refuse to politically engage with it.

You ran as a candidate for HKP, which was only formed in 2022. Could you tell us a bit about the party and how its first election campaign went? 

We basically come from the student movement, which represents a different kind of politics, focused more on national issues, international issues, study circles, reading groups. Back in November 2019, when I was a teacher, students organised this huge student solidarity protest after which there were sedition charges placed against us. This was the first uprising of students in decades, so it was a very promising moment. 

After that, there was a debate whether we [then the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement] should remain a movement or move towards forming a left-wing party. It became clear that due to the vacuum that existed in mainstream politics and the collapse of existing left-wing organisations, we needed a new left-wing party. So in November 2022 we registered the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party. 

But if you want to create a party, you cannot be a student-based group; you need to have a base in working class areas. That is why, in January 2023, we decided to contest the national elections by running a campaign [in the working-class neighbourhood of Chungi, in Lahore]. 

The main purpose of our campaign was not to win — obviously we wanted to win, but considering the balance of forces and how late we entered the fray, that was not really on the cards. For us, what was important was to gain traction, get noticed and build an organisational base. 

During that year of campaigning, we engaged in the most intense way possible with the working class and their problems. What we found was a social catastrophe. You really understand the social aspect of the crisis of neoliberalism that has afflicted countries such as Pakistan when you do such campaigning. We got water tested in the area and found it was basically undrinkable and mixed with sewage. We saw the huge level of illiteracy and the amount of children unable to go to school. 

Given the elections kept getting delayed, we decided to initiate some solidarity work in the area. We built a free academy, where we teach students who cannot go to school some computer skills, language skills, other skills, vocational training, etc. 

We also set up a health clinic, which was an incredible experience. We were close to the doctors association — a kind of doctor’s trade union — and they helped us set up a free clinic in the area. Developing this infrastructure was one of the best things that happened during this campaign. 

We also organised with workers during two incredible strikes to help them win an unprecedented package for laid-off workers, which became a big deal. 

Those were some of the big things we achieved in terms of building our base and building consciousness. 

This time around, we received 1600 votes — which for a new party is pretty decent. Those are 1600 people who had only just been introduced to left ideas and decided to break with mainstream politics. This has established the basis for an insurgent kind of politics in the years to come. That is what we hoped to do. We are also now very confident that we can run in elections elsewhere. 

Our next main targets are to build the organisation, not just in this area but across Pakistan; rebuild the workers’ movement; and build more clinics. In this regard, I would appeal to comrades to help us sustain this project by contributing to these clinics that are helping dozens of people everyday in working-class neighbourhoods. We are also planning to go with full force into the upcoming local government elections, which are expected early next year.