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Dynastic politics

Published Jul 24, 2012 02:04am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (30) Closed

W. Malik Jul 24, 2012 03:24pm
Solution to end dynastic politics is to have self-govt at local level all over the country. Districts, divisions and tehsils should be abolished and replaced with municipal govts as in ALL Western countries. New politicians will be created by these local govts and they will move up to provincial and Federal levels.
Humanist Jul 24, 2012 02:11pm
Z A Bhutto >>> Benazir >>> Asif zardari >>> Bilawal Zardari >>> ???. Is this democracy ? A non-hereditay Constitutional Monarchy is much superior and stable for of democracy
Roshan Sharma Jul 24, 2012 03:55pm
Pakistan is not alone in suffering from this politcal malignant cancer, look at its cousin brother,India.
I. Ahmed Jul 24, 2012 07:46am
Zahid Hussain has hit the nail on the head - political feudal dynasties. Excellent observation. It would be interesting to find out how many of these 102 families have their members in Pakistan Military and Bureaucracy - that will definitely complete the vicious circle that leads to voices of sanity being drowned by the imperialistic powers.
Bird Jul 24, 2012 03:48pm
Reminds me of an election in another country where the brother of a presidential candidate used his office as governor to swing the vote count in his favor. Then some supreme court justices appointed or influenced by the presidential candidate's father ruled in his favor. Or another election a long time ago when a powerful patriarch funded his son's presidential campaign and used his mob connections to swing the vote in his son's favor. Gotta love democracy.
1277sachughtai Jul 24, 2012 02:03pm
One should not expect any revolution in Pakistan, landed aristocracy is powerful. PPP raised prices for wheat. The farmer cannot be part of revolution, since we do not have enough industries, no labour revolution can be organized. The one solution, however, might work, i.e. document the economy by hook or by crook. 70% of the economy is informal sector,
Shankar Jul 24, 2012 01:49pm
Dynastic politics is common in many democracies - India, Srilanka, Bangladesh, US. It looks ugly but it is for the voters to vote against it. I am not sure if all first time politicians are angels and all dynastic politicians devils. We also have families of engineers, doctors, scientists, army officers, cricketers and even actors - we do not complain about them do we?
1277sachughtai Jul 24, 2012 01:51pm
One should not expect any revolution in Pakistan, landed aristocracy is powerful. PPP raised prices for wheat. The farmer cannot be part of revolution, since we do not have enough industries, no labour revolution can be organized. The one solution, however, might work, i.e. document the economy by hook or by crook. 70% of the economy is informal sector, and there are no taxes on this sector. If any future government is successful in documenting the economy and all those who are not in favor of this, must be kept in jails for few years. We can generate lot of revenue and if we improve economic conditions, attitudinal change might occur. Although I haveno hopes.
Jamki Jul 24, 2012 01:25pm
Is there any new information in the article? Much has been written on the subject before, but without any solution, conclusion. Has Author ever described those who ruled most of the time in the country originates from which area? Why upper Punjab is food secure and why southern Punjab and Sindh districts are food insecure despite being major production area? Forget Balochistan! Oh, yes, There was interesting aspect of the article, emphasize was on Bhtto which was mentioned six time, compare to one time Nawaz and Imran. Mulla rule, role…….., cheers
A.Z Jul 24, 2012 07:11am
Dynasty politics, nepotism, racketeering and a number of evils are the offsprings of a major problem, that is, corruption. A little sum out of the accumulated wealth by a minister during his tenure through corruption is kept reserved for the next election or the election campaign of a family member to create another source of income. Newly elected family members in the same fashion give birth to an other offshot or adopt an alternative approach by appointing family members in government posts assuring a life time sponsorship for them. Thus the wealth is accumulated in some specific clans and the poor gets poorer. To eradicate all other evils including the dynasty politics it is a pre-requisite to root out the corruption.
Shafi Jul 24, 2012 11:40am
In Pakistan, it is whom you know makes things happen. Merit has no place in Pakistani society which is quite sick despite being 'Islamic'.
jamil47 Jul 24, 2012 01:03pm
The more things change the more they remain the same.Democracy is a very difficult system and it takes a long time time to establish.At times centuries.The article [unwittingly] may cause frustration amongst some.
sana Jul 24, 2012 01:18pm
I wish the writer could have suggested workable solution to rid the country of the dynastic political system.
Cyrus Howell Jul 24, 2012 10:52am
When we talk about racketeering we must realize that racketeers are politically connected.
Mohammad Ali Khan Jul 24, 2012 03:44am
Pakistanis need to shed the culture of blind obedience, and embrace freedom in true spirit.The Pakistanis can get out of this chain by organizing and leading their way to progress.
Cyrus Howell Jul 24, 2012 10:59am
Only one way this happens. They buy the votes.
KKRoberts Jul 24, 2012 06:08am
This dynastic politics is actually inherited from pre-partition zamindari feudal system.Unless a massive land reform is done, this is going to stay there.
A.Z Jul 24, 2012 12:29pm
No dear, revolution is not a best deal, you may recall that there was a mass destruction during the French Revolution. Wealth of those people were also looted who accumulated it by hardwork. Further the reactionaries numbering nearly 15000 were guillotined, finally ending with the execution of Robspierre who was also guillotined as he did to the revolution reactionaries. Then came a dictator named Napoleon, he did the same extending dynasty politics by putting his brothers and relatives to the thrones of occupied states. Even as his second wife Marie gave birth to the only heir, he referred him to as the ''king of Rome''.
uzma salim Jul 24, 2012 08:01am
concise and complete description of these so called "dynastic politicians" presented very nicely but they people become expert in this regard. For them, strategic planing for relatives pretty much easy instead of for state.
Shafi Jul 24, 2012 08:13am
The answer my friend is nothing short of a revolution by the masses; a replica of the French revolution.
Haji Ashfaq Jul 24, 2012 08:16am
An interesting analysis. Wants to comment but since I know that my comments will be deleted within seconds - thank you.
Shafi Jul 24, 2012 08:17am
The remedy for a 'cancer' is always radical eradication.
kind Jul 24, 2012 08:50am
good plus bad
Tanvir Jul 24, 2012 04:29pm
I concur!
Sanjay Saksena Jul 24, 2012 04:30pm
The author makes a very valid point. democracy in the sub continent ( India is no different ) is basically about legitimising the rule of the dynasties. It is not clear why the son or a daughter of a politician is better equipped to lead a people than an officer of the army. Those who champion the cause of democracy in undeveloped societies gloss over the fact that the so called "peeople's power is nothing more than a shabby excuse to hand the state to the modern day nawabs.
Neeraj Jul 24, 2012 04:33pm
Rightly said bro, but who will bell the cat.
Khizr Jul 24, 2012 04:55pm
The Feudals have not done much for their people in the last 60 years, but the people still keep voting for them. How do we explain the mentality of people who keep strenghtening the hands of people who exploit them? Education has been deliberately kept out of the rural setting in Pakistan.
Shafi Jul 24, 2012 07:24pm
Harsh reality is that sometimes a price no matter how bad it sounds. England had a civil war, China had a bloody revolution, France and Russia had revolutions Even America had a civil war. Look where they are now. If Pakistani's do not do any thing, they deserve their fate which is getting worse every day.
excalibur Jul 24, 2012 09:08pm
In the present times it is the responsibility of the educated class whether religious or secular to vote in the right people .
kashif zaidi Jul 25, 2012 01:30am
Surprizingly, article does not list Wali Khan's family and almost silent about Mian Dynasty !!!