ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

“The Lesser Evil”: Techniques of Neutralizing Populism in Pakistan


Kalia Sumrin - University College London, Institute for Global Prosperity, London, United Kingdom


22 – The present democratic crisis in South Asia: causes, distinctive elements and historical precedents


 In most contemporary democracies the rise of populism has raised concerns over increasing authoritarianism. More importantly persistence of support for populist leaders despite their norm-violations-such as curtailment of civil liberties, use of deception, delegitimization of other institutions etc. remains a puzzle. This paper takes the case of Imran Khan’s populist politics in Pakistan and demonstrates how support for his politics persists in Pakistan despite his governance failures and anti-democratic rhetoric. Borrowing from Sykes and Matza’s typology, of ‘Techniques of Neutralization” (Sykes and Matza 1957), I argue that supporters vindicate Khan’s deviant behaviors, such as attack on freedom of press, spreading hate speech, corruption etc. through various techniques of neutralization such as denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victim, favoring particularist loyalties, and blame shifting. They consistently justify Khan’s norm-violations by arguing that ‘there was no choice’ and that ‘Khan’s PTI is the only acceptable if not ideal option’. These justifications are underlined by the claim that the system is corrupt, politics is evil and Khan, despite his transgressions, is ‘the lesser evil’. In the context of Pakistan, with weak institutions, high inequality, and bad governance, ‘the lesser evil’ justification motivates antagonistic politics which not only neutralizes populist norm-violations but also leads to broader norm erosion