Conspiracy Theories, Foreign Policy, and Voting Behavior in Pakistan

Niloufer Siddiqui

The ouster of former prime minister Imran Khan through a no-confidence vote in April 2022 divided an already polarized nation. Unrest broke out and rallies followed across the country. Khan claimed that his ouster had been orchestrated at the behest of the United States and reflected a foreign regime change conspiracy. The protests demonstrated that, at least among a sizeable subset of the populace, this conspiracy-tinged narrative was resonating. Since then, polling has shown increasing confidence in Khan’s narrative, with the percentage of Pakistanis believing that the U.S. had a role to play in Khan’s ouster rising from 36% in early April to 46% by June 2022.

These developments raise a number of questions about the relationships between political polarization, beliefs in conspiracies, and voting behavior. Recent academic research does not answer all of these questions but does provide important insights into the causes of such beliefs, their effect on negative downstream attitudes, and whether and how they translate into political behavior.

First, what should we make of the sizeable—and growing—percentage of people who believe the conspiracy theory that the U.S. was behind Imran Khan’s ouster? According to Gallup Pakistan polling, belief in the conspiracy falls strongly along partisan lines. Supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) are much more likely to believe that Imran Khan was removed due to foreign conspiracies (73%), and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supporters are much less likely to do so (8%). While the directionality of this relationship is unclear—that is, whether people support the PTI because they believe the conspiracy or believe the conspiracy because they support the PTI—it is consistent with research on the link between partisanship and such beliefs, both within and outside of Pakistan.

In a survey in Punjab in 2012, I embedded an experiment with varying party endorsement of conspiracies across respondents. I found that voters were significantly more likely to believe conspiracy theories when they were endorsed by their favored political party. This effect was magnified among more strongly partisan individuals, that is, those who said that they felt close to a particular party rather than when partisanship was measured simply through past or future expected voting behavior. This finding suggests that, in a political milieu which is often seen as dominated purely by electable politics and patron-client relations, political parties may be rational in seeking to create and influence narratives in order to enhance their support and potentially even improve their chances of success at the polls. Indeed, parties may question the factual nature of particular accounts in order to appear sympathetic to public opinion, cast doubts on the opposition’s credibility, or increase support for their own party mandates or ideology. By proposing a foreign-regime-change conspiracy, then, Imran Khan may have been able to successfully leverage high baseline levels of distrust of the United States and foreign meddling in Pakistan’s domestic affairs, as well as concerns with national sovereignty while simultaneously casting his political opponents as anti-national.

However, the extent to which such narratives alter political behavior—and if so, for whom—remains an open question. In the aforementioned survey, I found that the causal effect of partisanship on belief in conspiracies was largely restricted to urban and higher-income individuals, with rural, low-income individuals comparatively unmoved by the partisan source of the conspiracy theories. And in a separate study of voting determinants conducted together with Christopher Clary, we found that foreign policy (specifically policy towards India) was the least significant factor among five candidate characteristics cited in determining voting behavior. While voters did penalize hypothetical candidates for advocating friendly relations with India, the scale of that penalty was relatively modest. This was the case despite strongly expressed anti-India opinions. Of course, foreign policy in non-crisis times is likely to be less resonant than during times of acute crisis. Nonetheless, the finding that foreign policy is often irrelevant to voting decisions is consistent with literature even in more developed settings, such as the United States.

However, as with the urban-rural divide I observed in my earlier work with partisan belief in conspiracy theories, my subsequent work on foreign policy and voting behavior also identified important regional differences within Pakistan. Respondents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were most likely to penalize candidates for holding dove-ish positions on India, in a significant difference from Punjab. While respondents in Punjab were only 0.3% less likely to select a candidate advocating friendly policies towards India (an effect indistinguishable from zero), respondents in KP were 5.2% less likely to select the same candidate (a statistically significant finding). News analysis also suggests that KP voters have found PTI’s anti-U.S. narrative especially persuasive.

Taken together, these disparate strands of research suggest that the effect of party narratives or party ideologies will resonate more with some segments of the country than others. There is little doubt that the economic turmoil of the last two months is a likely confounding factor responsible for increasing both support for the PTI as well as increasing belief in the foreign regime change conspiracy in a number of constituencies. However, for other societal groups, the content of the conspiracy theory—and PTI’s narrative more broadly—may be persuasive separate from their prior feelings about the PTI and Imran Khan. We are—as yet—unable to disentangle the relative effect of PTI’s narratives versus economic dissatisfaction in contributing to the PTI’s overwhelming victory in by-elections held in Punjab on July 17. However, the scale of this victory in the PML-N’s traditional electoral stronghold certainly suggests that, whether through increasing voter turnout or swaying voters, the narrative has proven effective.

Importantly, independent of its consequences for electoral success, the PTI’s polarizing narrative—steeped as it is in nationalist sentiment and relying on unverified conspiracy theories—has potentially damaging downstream effects. A rich literature across various countries and contexts has highlighted the negative impact of nationalism on a whole host of outcome measures, whether increasing hawkishness or support for military action. In recent research I conducted with Asfandyar Mir, we find causal evidence that nationalist sentiment can increase negative beliefs about rights-seeking minority groups within Pakistan. Through a survey experiment, we find that when exposed to nationalist sentiment—even nationalism which seeks to evoke internal unity—respondents were more likely to believe that ethnic minorities demanding more rights were seeking to undermine the nation with help from foreign actors. Respondents exposed to nationalist sentiment were 6% more likely to believe two different statements about ethnic minorities colluding with foreign actors than those who were not given any nationalist cues.  Focus groups further suggest that such an effect may operate through the desire of nationalists to portray only a positive image of Pakistan. Groups that bring attention to societal ills in Pakistan may be considered as working against the nationalist project.

The PTI’s current narrative, then, is likely to have consequences beyond just distrust of the U.S. or the PML-N and other political parties. Because nationalist or polarized rhetoric is sometimes accompanied by incitement to violence by societal actors and elites, it also doesn’t inspire confidence for when national elections are eventually held. We may see more civil unrest, “violence and mismanagement” plaguing the electoral process, and importantly, electoral outcomes rejected by some segments of society. All signs point to a perilous several months for Pakistani politics.

Niloufer Siddiqui is Assistant Professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York