Imran Khan Must Learn From The Success of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey and Pakistan have always had a strong relationship and while culturally and politically, both countries have very different backgrounds apart from both being Muslim majority nations, politically speaking, recent decades have experienced similarities and divergences that both bear a closer examination.

Parliamentary and Presidential 

Throughout the 20th century, political changes resulted in both Turkey and Pakistan ping-ponging between strong presidential and parliamentary systems. While both modern states were founded by strong presidential figures, in Turkey’s case Ataturk and in Pakistan’s case Muhammad Ali Jinnah – both countries eventually adopted a parliamentary system. In Pakistan’s case, a strong parliamentary system was adopted in 1973 under the leadership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. However, by 1977, a de-facto strong Presidential system came back when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq became President after overthrowing Bhutto’s government. Then in 1988 upon Zia’s death, a parliamentary system returned only to be supplanted by another strong Presidential system in 1999 when like Zia before him, General Pervez Musharraf led a coup against the parliamentary government.

In Turkey, multiple coups throughout the 20th century often shifted the balance of power between parliament and president although most of Turkey’s coups were generally less chaotic than those in Pakistan owing in part to the rigid discipline that Ataturk installed in the Army. Nevertheless, in both countries, the armed forces have been seen as guardians of the constitutional order (often along with high court judges) against the whims of politicians. This has proved controversial in both nations with mainstream opinion often being divided between a pro-establishment and pro-political class mindset.

Today, Turkey returns to a strong executive Presidency after incumbent President Erdogan was elected with a mandate to shape the country according to the results of the 2017 Constitutional Referendum which gave the President expanded powers.

But while Pakistan’s current political system is parliamentary and Turkey’s is now a strong presidential system – similarities in this month’s elections in Turkey and next month’s elections in Pakistan are still strong.



Secularism vs. Religion 

In both Turkey and Pakistan, politics has tended to be divided between secular parties and parties which seek to promote Islamic values in society. In recent decades this has pitted the secular Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) versus the more religious conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML) (under its various competing factions) while in Turkey, Erdogan’s religiously conservative AK Party has competed with the secular CH Party.

In this year’s Pakistani elections, the country’s third party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which was formed in 1996 now poses a serious challenge to both the PPP and PML-N. PTI was founded by former cricketing legend Imran Khan only two years after Erdogan was first elected mayor of Istanbul.

Both Khan and Erdogan emphasise a need to invest in civic infrastructure, a more modern and efficient economy, educational reforms, better management of public health, a non-aligned foreign policy despite historical trends and an aim to combine Islamic values with modern democracy.



Personal and economic track records

While Erdogan has never lost an election, PTI has yet to achieve its goal of winning at a national level, although during Pakistan’s last general elections held in 2013, Imran Khan’s PTI managed to come within striking distance of the PPP, while that same year PTI assumed leadership of the Provincial Assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Economically, Turkey has tended to be more stable and in recent years far stronger than Pakistan, as even many of Erdogan’s opponents admit that his overall economic record has been positive. That being said, Pakistan’s new geopolitical alignments and its key position along China’s One Belt–One Road has opened up new economic avenues whose potential to elevate the material condition of the Pakistani people will only be realised after the election.

Turkey too plays an important part in One Belt–One Road and in this sense, future years will also see Turkey benefiting from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a maritime belt from the Pakistani port at Gwadar to the eastern Mediterranean remains a key component in global trade whose importance will be accelerated as the many belts and roads of China’s global initiative become solidified. Furthermore, the prospects for a land route from Pakistan to Turkey via Iran is also a much needed development that could lead to the development of a new South Asia to Mediterranean economic corridor.



Campaigning techniques 

Unlike Erdogan, Imran Khan will not be able to rely on the benefits of incumbency, but even so he could learn a great deal from Erdogan’s campaigning technique.  While Pakistan’s formal election season only just begun, for the last year if not more, politicians have been in electioneering mode. This reality has both benefits and drawbacks. While it allows candidates more exposure than in short campaign cycles, it also opens them up to the kind of scandal hungry atmosphere that is pervasive throughout south Asian media.

Even before attaining national power, Erdogan was skilful at using mass media to his advantage. Rather than engage with wilfully confrontational reporters, Erdogan took his message directly to the people in the form of mass rallies (something Imran Khan has also excelled at), social media and carefully crafted messages that clearly impart that Erdogan has a strong personal and political identity. Erdogan’s campaigns are something of a unique industry where his message is delivered far and wide in a highly direct manner that most Pakistani politicians could only dream of.  Direct campaigning that circumvents traditional media avenues is an area where US President Donald Trump and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also excelled.

For Imran Khan, it would be instructive to learn from Erdogan how to avoid the often de-humanising media confrontations that can make otherwise strong politicians appear needlessly vulnerable. While a strong politician aims to rule a nation, hostile media outlets controlling the cameras often go out of their way to make an outspoken leader appear weak.

Because of this, Imran Kahn, a man whose message is not dissimilar from that of Erdogan in many respects, could learn from the Turkish President how to use media to his constant advantage while skilfully avoiding potentially detrimental situations.



Populism, Multipolarity and Islam 

These are the three areas where both men have the most in common. Domestically, both Erdogan and Imran Khan are opposed by ultra-secularists and religious extremists which is not a bad thing if one seeks to occupy a genuine centre ground. Both men are adamant that religion and modern democratic systems based on human and factional equality can and must coexist. Likewise, both have stated that the old economic order is broken and must be urgently reformed to be made more efficient, less corrupt and more self-reliant. In Erdogan’s case, economic reform is an ongoing process while for Khan, his methods have not yet been tested.

In terms of foreign policy, Erdogan has succeeded at using his eastern partnerships with the Chinese and Russian superpowers to leverage against the hegemonic desires of the US and EU. As a result, Erdogan has thus far been able to conduct agreements with both ‘east and west’ to the benefit of his nation. If Imran Khan seeks to be a successful Prime Minister, he will need to more effectively articulate this ethos in a manner that is simple and clear while also leaving room for manoeuvring both in terms of rhetoric and specific policy making.

Finally, while Erdogan has proved that he has not abolished Turkey’s secular characteristics but has merely allowed for the freedom of religious elements to be incorporated into society, Iman Khan must also make it clear that his leadership won’t result in shocking social change but nor will he cave to asymmetrical pressures from religious extremists nor from urban elites.



Party discipline 

This is one area where the PTI could learn the most from the AK Party. The AK Party runs like a well oiled machine from the group up. This is true of AK activists who can be easily and peacefully mobilised to high level officials who clearly understand their role, their purposes and their individual strengths and weaknesses. PTI must work to become far more disciplined in this sense, as scenes of rival PTI activists insulting each other and occasionally fighting one another in public do not inspire confidence in the party’s ability to unite the nation. Here, it would benefit Imran Khan to directly reach out to AK officials for consultations on stabilising party political mechanisms.




Erdogan has a great deal of experience in government while Imran Khan has yet to attain high national office. During Imran Khan’s quest to form a government, his country has experienced great deals of political turbulence while beginning the 21st century, Turkey has remained generally stable despite a failed coup attempt in 2016 and the constant threat of terrorism (albeit of a different nature) that impacts both countries, as it does to much of the world.

For Imran Khan and PTI to ready themselves for the government they seek to form; with one month to go before Pakistanis head to the polls, it would behove Imran Khan to personally reach out to the closest thing he has to an intentional counterpart in the form of Erdogan and the AK Party.  However one might analyse his record, no one can deny that Erdogan and the AK party know how to win elections without fail.



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