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Friday, February 16, 2024

The problem with democracy in Pakistan

The political families run the political parties as family enterprises while they run the country as a personal fiefdom. All mainstream political parties are dominated by dynasties that benefit from the status quo where the institutions and the system as a whole is broken and favor only the upper class.

Beginning with the age of the renaissance, Western civilization has dominated the world ever since. Monarchy and absolute power resting within one family have become non-existent in the Western world. Democratic ideals took the monopoly on power away from the landed gentry and industrial elites and created universal suffrage, and equal opportunity for the ordinary man, establishing a middle class capable of making inventions, running businesses and breaking into the corridors of power. Now liberal democracy is considered to be the most successful government model. The majority of the poor global South adheres to democracy, albeit with certain problems and customizations. The literal meaning of the word democracy is “rule by law”, where governments are chosen by the people. Pakistan is relatively a newcomer to democracy.

The country came into existence in 1947, meanwhile, an elected government completed its constitutional five-year term for the first time in its history in 2013 and peacefully transitioned power to the next democratically elected government. Various military dictators have ruled the country for approximately thirty-two years. In between four coups, came smaller periods of democracy to be ultimately quashed by the dictatorship. This resulted in a lack of evolution and improvement in democratic credentials.

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Democracy evolves over time and self corrects itself

Democratic governments and forces in Pakistan never had this luxury. The constant interference and military dictatorship disrupted the process and resulted in a society largely unaware of how democracy should work. Major state institutions such as police, lower judiciary, election commission and provincial as well as local administration internalized bulldozing rules and regulations in favor of the powerful elite. The institutions lack any mechanism for accountability, and powerful individuals from the political, economic and law enforcement sectors can easily manipulate the system. The political interference in institutions and organizations funded by the public’s money is perhaps one of the biggest hurdles in implementing the rule of law.

This tradition of public institutions lacking any mechanism for accountability and autonomy heightened during military dictatorships and still prevails in Pakistan. The dysfunctional system that we witness and experience every day in Pakistan, is a result of our history. There is an almost comical repeat of political crises every three to four years, economic boom and bust which ultimately benefits the elites, the frail condition of the judicial system, and the poor quality of public service delivery and the military’s interference in politics. Besides the flaw in evolution, Pakistan’s core problem is the domination of dynastic politicians and dynastic families.

Two of the three main political parties, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), are dominated by two dynastic families which assume party leadership without any democratic process within the party. Almost all political parties, with the exception of the Mutahida Qoumi Movement (MQM), are dominated by feudal landlords and industrial tycoons. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is the only mainstream party, where leadership does not rest with family lineage. Imran Khan, a cricketer turned politician, prides on leading the only non-dynastic mainstream political party. The catch, however, is that the rest of the party leadership consists of the scions of feudal and industrialists.

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All three main political parties are under an elite capture with no space in party ranks for the middle class. The industrialists, feudal and people with generational family wealth, enter politics simply to influence and bend the system in their favor and preserve class interests. Being a member of a national or provincial assembly is never the primary employment or source of income. A political party is the basic unit of democracy, if this unit is flawed, the entire process becomes dysfunctional. In western political parties, leadership on all levels is elected by the party members. The system is not rigged in favor of one family.

All members can equally participate and contest for party leadership

The intra-party democracy prevents the monopoly of particular families and elite capture. In this way, Pakistani democracy is fundamentally flawed. Research shows that four hundred families have dominated Punjab’s politics since the seventies. PPP was founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a feudal lord. His daughter Benazir Bhutto then assumed the party leadership, followed by Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s husband, who then, according to his wife’s wishes, passed the party on to their son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. No elections for top leadership positions are ever held, the party’s motto is “Jiye Bhutto, jiye awaam”. The family lineage hence is central to PPP’s entire politics. In fact, the one family is the entire political party. PMLN on the other hand is dominated by the Sharifs.

Nawaz Sharif, son of an industrialist who kept a close control over the party, is now grooming his daughter Maryam Nawaz for the leadership position. After Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification, his brother Shahbaz Sharif became the party head without contesting any Intra party elections. Whenever PMLN came into power, Nawaz Sharif occupied the Prime Minister’s Office while his bother became Punjab’s, Chief Minister. Now with Nawaz’s disqualification,  Shahbaz Sharif has become the prime minister, with his son Hamza Shahbaz as the Chief Minister of Punjab. PMLN is notorious for keeping Pakistan’s key executive and political position within the family whenever it comes in power. Monopoly over the top position in the party by default allows the Sharifs and Bhutto Zardaris access to the country’s highest executive office.

This lack of democratic credentials means that no matter how competent or visionary any party leader or worker is, he/she can never lead the party and by extension, lead the country. Only individuals with specific lineage and family name, regardless of merit or intelligence, are entitled to a top party leadership position with an absolute elite capture of the first and second tier of party leadership. This dominance of wealthy politicians within the party then transforms in the electoral process, where party leaders are awarded tickets to contest elections. Almost all parties award tickets to the rich, hence in reality Pakistani people only get to pick their representatives from among the elites whose sole distinction is political affiliation.

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A common man has no actual representation

An individual belonging to the middle or lower class has to pick someone from the upper class to fight for his interests. The educated urban middle class, as well as the rural class, has no opportunity to contest elections and address the system. Most lower-tier leadership in these political parties gets no recognition for its grass root level work for the party or efforts in the respective constituency. The political families run the political parties as family enterprises while they run the country as a personal fiefdom. All mainstream political parties are dominated by dynasties that benefit from the status quo where the institutions and the system as a whole is broken and favor only the upper class.

There is no incentive for these political parties to then actually address the deficiencies in Pakistani institutions, bureaucracy and judiciary. Hence democracy fails to deliver while Pakistanis remain stuck in this endless loop. Until the basic party structure is not improved with fair Intra party elections, and the inclusion of the middle class and lower class in political party leadership, Pakistan’s democracy will remain handicapped, and the cycle of political crises will continue.


The writer is a Political Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science in Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.