The Gregorian New Year holiday did not pass by without increasingly strange political developments emanating from the United States. First there was news that actress Angelina Jolie was considering running for president while later, rapper Kanye West issued cryptic Tweets indicating that he seeks to run for president in the year 2024 (when his friend Donald Trump will no longer be eligible, assuming he wins in 2020). At the same time, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren declared her candidacy by Instagraming herself drinking beer while cooking – hardly behaviour indicative of any political substance.
The celebrity driven mania of US politics is about as far from a genuine meritocratic system as one can get, but this is not to say that the phenomenon of the celebrity turned politician is automatically a bad thing. Nor is it to say that such a thing is a uniquely American phenomenon. After all, famous actors and musicians have the same right to participate in democratic elections as do their fellow citizens. However, it is only in parliamentary systems where such individuals are tested in terms of their cognitive ability and political skill sets prior to such individuals enter government.
In Pakistan, cricketing legend Imran Khan was a far more beloved celebrity than Donald Trump was in the United States prior to his presidential election. Yet when in 2018 Imran became his country’s Prime Minister, he did so after years of meritocratic trial by the fire in the heart of a parliamentary system. When Imran Khan formed his PTI party in 1996, many in the elitist political class dismissed it as a vanity project. As the years rolled on however, Imran Khan was able to demonstrate that his party was in fact capable of fighting and winning elections as in 2013, PTI won the leadership of the regional assembly (aka regional parliament) in the former de-facto war zone that is the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. During the next election in 2018, PTI at long last won power nationally. Crucially, it must be noted that PTI may well have risen to power more rapidly had parliamentary politics not be subsumed by the rise of a dictatorial president Pervez Musharraf in 2001. Likewise, because of the chaos caused by Musharraf, PTI boycotted 2008 parliamentary elections on the basis that they would not be conducted in a fair and openly democratic atmosphere.
Yet even in a parliamentary system whose development was stifled by the corrupt return of presidentialism in 2001, Imran’s many years in Pakistan’s National Assembly – the country’s main parliamentary chamber, helped him cut his teeth in the turbulent world of national politics long before entering government. It was through this experience as well as through the experience of mobilising a new political party throughout a vast nation that tested Imran Khan’s intellectual and physical stamina during the toughest of times. By observing Imran over the course of his political life since 1996, the nation at large came to see a man who relied on his ideas, his passion for economic and social change and his anti-corruption zeal, rather than his celebrity, in pursuit of galvanising the public behind PTI’s reformist political manifesto.
When PTI finally won at a national level in 2018, they did so at the expense of the PML-N and PPP – two parties run by the powerful Sharif and Bhutto-Zardari dynasties, respectively. Thus, Imran Khan’s journey through all levels of the parliamentary system helped him not only to prove his worth based on meritocratic performance rather than because of his celebrity, but as a result, Imran and PTI showed that Pakistan’s government needn’t be permanently dominated by political dynasties.
In a presidential system, one simply has no way of proving one’s worth prior to taking office. This is due to the fact that presidential systems are nothing more than a zero sum game in which the victor takes power and the loser in the election is left without political office. By contrast, in a parliamentary system, even someone whose party comes in third or fourth at the polls, still typically wins a handful of parliamentary seats for his or her party – thus giving such a fledgling party and its leadership the ability to test their policies from the position of the opposition in a parliamentary chamber.
Likewise, while political dynasties exist in many nations, it is much easier to dethrone them from power in a parliamentary system in which parties campaign around an ideas based manifesto rather than entirely around one man or one woman. While PML-N and PPP are struggling to win back credibility from their position as opposition parties in Pakistan’s National Assembly, in the United States, there are whispers that the Clinton political dynasty may yet again try to gain power through a third Hillary Clinton presidential run. Because of the peculiar nature of presidential systems, several thousand votes across a country the size of the US might be the difference between the continuation of the Clinton dynasty and its evaporation from front-line politics. By contrast, in Pakistan, PTI now has the opportunity to build its movement even wider while filling its ranks with individuals rising through a meritocracy rather than those born into dynasties. All the while, PML-N and PPP look more and more like political relics as they too continue to be tested on the basis of a meritocracy from within Pakistan’s parliament.
Imran Khan’s political rise demonstrates that parliamentary systems have the ability to transform untested celebrities into proven political leaders – something which is systematically impossible in presidential systems. Likewise, Imran’s political rise has demonstrated that when meritocratic political systems are left to develop organically and democratically (as at long last Pakistan’s has been allowed to do), dynasties without substance eventually fall to parties providing fresh ideas that inspire the nation.