PRIME MINISTER Shehbaz Sharif’s stint as placeholder for his older brother in more ways than one may soon be over, as indicated by his own words this week. After he was re-elected president of the PML-N in intra-party elections on Friday, Mr Sharif said the post was temporary and would be returned to Nawaz Sharif upon his return to Pakistan. Further, asserted the premier, the elder Sharif would “lead his country to progress and prosperity after becoming prime minister for the fourth time”. On the same occasion, Maryam Nawaz was elected senior vice president and chief organiser of the party. Over at the PPP, Asif Zardari has expressed a wish to see his son Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari become the country’s next prime minister; in fact, this ambition is said to be a major factor shaping the former president’s political moves in the run-up to elections.
Dynastic politics are a familiar feature of most countries in South Asia. It is a reflection of a society that privileges ‘connections’ above merit, where politics is conducted on the promise of patronage rather than on the strength of policies. In Pakistan, without the ‘right’ family name, making it into the rarefied top tier of party leadership is virtually impossible. If anyone does so, it is through force of circumstance and often only to keep the seat warm for the ‘rightful’ family contender — sometimes one’s own older sibling. Consider, for example, PML-N’s Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail, very capable individuals in their own right who could enjoy only brief turns as prime minister and finance minister, respectively, because they were ‘outsiders’. This exclusionary system can engender resentment and lead to rifts; both Mr Abbasi and Mr Ismail are now sidelined within their party. Even the leadership of mainstream progressive parties like the Awami National Party has been passed down from generation to generation in the same family, that of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, one of the founders of the National Awami Party, ANP’s forerunner. PTI chairman Imran Khan has often railed against dynastic politics, but his party too is replete with the same. Except in the case of the Jamaat-i-Islami, intra-party elections that are required by law, are a farce designed to perpetuate the status quo rather than encourage new leadership to come to the fore. True democracy can only take root when political parties practise it within themselves.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2023