By Mihir Sharma

Not for the first time in its modern history, Pakistan’s judiciary — tacitly backed by the rest of its “establishment” — appears to be seeking to snuff out the career of a leading politician. Late last week, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was convicted of misappropriating official gifts. He has been sentenced to three years in prison and cannot stand for election for five years.

Khan claims, not without reason, that the slew of legal proceedings against him are intended to keep him from contesting the next general elections, expected this fall. Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf or PTI, has won a streak of by-elections since being forced out of power last year and had a good chance of returning to power.

That prospect is anathema to Pakistan’s establishment, in which the military plays a dominant role. After first embracing Khan’s insurgent, Islamist, anti-US rhetoric, the generals have more recently recoiled against his increasingly direct, populist attacks.

Past Pakistani leaders, including Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif, have been disqualified on equally flimsy grounds. In many ways, though, Khan’s hold over his followers is unique — closer to that wielded by a figure such as former US President Donald Trump, himself caught up in an expanding legal morass. Neither man’s opponents should celebrate too soon.

On the one hand, it is true that the populist movements led by figures such as Khan and Trump are highly dependent on their personalities. Khan’s decades in the public eye as the charismatic captain of the national cricket team mean that his followers see him not as a “regular” politician but as a successful celebrity outsider capable of transforming the country.

Both men are also in their 70s, with no obvious successors. Entangling them in court proceedings and appeals should theoretically distract them long enough to break the hold they have over their followers. It’s hard to look like a winner if you’re losing case after case in the courts.

It’s equally true that neither Khan nor Trump can credibly complain about their treatment. Khan, who originally rose to power thanks to the military’s backing and who campaigned for Sharif’s disqualification as a candidate, cannot act surprised if the establishment has now withdrawn its protection. Similarly, Trump has plenty of nerve criticizing the US Justice Department after cheering on the FBI’s (far less damning) inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s email server in 2016.

Nevertheless, both men are likely to get away with such cynical attacks. Like all populist leaders, their appeal is based around the belief that they share their followers’ experience of victimization and persecution. Those acolytes don’t particularly care about the open hypocrisy of their champions. Liberals believe that those who break norms should pay a price for this error; populist leaders can convince voters that norms are just another establishment conspiracy.

On purely rational grounds, too, Khan has reason for confidence. Pakistan faces an economic emergency, which helps him make the usual populist case that the country has been betrayed by mainstream politicians.

Perhaps he will miss one election; that need not mean that his career is at an end. Pakistanis point out that even after Sharif was disqualified, his party clawed its way back into power. His brother is now prime minister. Knowing that may help explain why Khan’s followers have been relatively muted in their response to his conviction so far.

In Pakistan no less than the US, the fact is that no judicial verdict, however justified or overdue, can substitute for a political one. Khan’s sentencing, just like Trump’s many indictments, will only feed his followers’ paranoia and paradoxically increase his political power.

Liberals in the US should have learned by now they cannot rely on judges to fight their battles for them. Similarly, Pakistan’s establishment, accustomed to pulling strings behind the scenes, needs to step back and let Pakistan’s civilian politicians — who love neither Khan nor the military — learn how to win back voters’ trust on their own.

Populism is a disease of democracy and needs to be defeated democratically. The US, with its centuries-old institutions, may be able to see off Trump in 2024; Pakistan, with a much shallower democratic tradition, may find moving beyond Khan much harder. But the defense of democracy permits no shortcuts.

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of or the Business Standard newspaper