Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Dynastic politics

July 24, 2012


DESPITE huge political and social changes that have occurred over the last 60 years, electoral politics in Pakistan has remained largely a family enterprise. A limited number of families continue to dominate Pakistan’s legislatures, turning them into oligarchies.

This stranglehold of a narrow power elite on the country’s politics was highlighted by the victory of Abdul Qadir Gilani in the by-election on the seat vacated by his father Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Although the former prime minister himself is barred from holding any public office for five years, his family remains all-powerful, with two of his sons now sitting in the National Assembly and a brother occupying a seat in the Punjab Assembly. Some reports suggest that another of his sons may stand for the Punjab Assembly seat vacated by Qadir Gilani.

The Gilanis are one of the 102 families holding more than 50 per cent of the seats in the federal and provincial legislatures. That says a lot about the state of representative democracy in Pakistan.

A sense of dynastic entitlement dominates the country’s political culture, impeding the development of institutional democracy.

With few exceptions, all the political parties are in fact extensions of powerful families with hereditary leaderships. Their politics mainly revolve around managing and strengthening family interests. Elections are all about gaining control of state patronage. Clan, tribe, caste and biradari play a major role in the perpetuation of dynastic politics.

Indeed most of Pakistan’s political dynasties are rural-based with feudal origins, but over the years families from urban, religious and military backgrounds have also emerged on the political scene.

A part of the post-partition industrialist and business elite, the Sharif family saw its rise in the 1980s during Gen Zia’s military rule. Deviating somewhat from the pattern, it draws its strength mainly from the support of the urban mercantile class of Punjab.

However, despite coming from a completely different social origin and background the Sharifs have fallen into line, sharing a similar feudal-tribal, patrimonial and personality-based style of politics.

Over the past three decades the Bhutto legacy has dominated Pakistan’s political scene. After the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the mantle of leadership passed to his daughter Benazir Bhutto. But her assassination in 2007 heralded the rise of a new political dynasty led by her husband Asif Ali Zardari. Besides himself being the country’s president, Zardari has two sisters and one brother-in-law who are members of the National Assembly. Furthermore, his sister Faryal Talpur is elected from the Bhutto family seat in Larkana, effectively bringing an end to the Bhutto dynasty.

Not surprisingly, the military, which has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence directly or indirectly, has also been responsible for the entrenchment of dynastic politics. In an effort to legitimise and perpetuate their rule all military rulers have also sought to co-opt powerful political families.

With few exceptions, all the major political dynasties have been a part of successive military regimes to protect their own long-term political interests and receive state patronage. Some of the most powerful political families were in fact propped up by military regimes.

Given its history it did not come as a surprise when the majority of the PML-N leadership switched its allegiance to the military regime soon after the overthrow of the Nawaz Sharif government in 1999.

Led by Shujaat Hussain, the patriarch of one of the most powerful political dynasties, the dissident faction known as the PML-Q provided political support to Gen Musharraf’s military regime. Ironically the group is now a key partner in the present PPP-led coalition government.

In many cases members of the same clan are distributed among different political parties to protect family interests. A case in point is the Magsi family, whose influence extends into both Sindh and Balochistan.

Headed by Zulfiqar Magsi, the governor of Balochistan, the family has at least 10 members in the National Assembly, the Senate and the Balochistan and Sindh assemblies. The list includes his children, brothers, sisters and wife, who is a minister in the Balochistan government. Interestingly, they have been elected on either PPP or PML-Q tickets.

The Saifullahs of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are another powerful political dynasty with members distributed among different political parties. While Salim Saifullah, who recently completed his six-year term in the Senate, is a member of the Likeminded faction of the PML-Q, his younger brother  Humayun Saifullah is a sitting PML-Q MNA. His other brother, Anwar Saifullah, who was also a son-in-law of former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, is a PPP member in the KP Assembly.

Anwer Saifullah’s son, Osman Saifullah, has recently been elected to the Senate on a PPP ticket from Islamabad. One of his nephews, Jahangir Saifullah, has recently joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf.

There have been only two instances in the past when established families were defeated in elections. The first was in 1970 when relatively unknown PPP candidates swept away the established political dynasties of Punjab. The sweep was described as a ‘revolution through the ballot box’. Ironically, after coming to power Zulfikar Ali Bhutto embraced all those defeated power brokers, transforming the party’s composition. A similar routing of political dynasties occurred in 2002 when the MMA, a coalition of Islamic parties, swept the polls in KP. Ordinary local mullahs defeated the all-powerful oligarchs.

The circumstances of the two elections may be completely different, but in both cases this proved to be a temporary phenomenon.

Indeed, various opinion polls indicate a growing public disapproval of the present set-up. The country is ripe for change. But can prevailing public sentiments be translated into a vote against the old order in the coming elections? Or will it be a return of the status quo?

The writer is an author and journalist.