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Looking beyond feudal politics in Pakistan

Political analysts say system focused on ethnic tribes, family dynasties has slowed democracy.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

For Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a member of Pakistan's National Assembly, the sooner people like him are out of a job, the better.

Khakwani, 58, calls himself and other lawmakers "brokers" between the people and "the oppressive arms" of the state, such as police officers and tax collectors. It is a system held over from British rule, he explained, in which politicians from powerful families act as intermediaries, often using methods such as extortion and false arrests to extract bribes for their services.

Instead, people should be protected by the rule of law, "so that justice is given without the help of people like me," Khakwani, whose family has been in politics in Punjab province off and on for 45 years, said in a recent interview. "If you provide them justice, people like me will also reform. Even if it destroys our livelihood, this is what reform is all about."

As Pakistan prepares for elections scheduled for Feb. 18, political analysts say the country's feudal political system -- organized around ethnic tribes, family dynasties and personality cults -- has retarded the development of democracy. Numerous seats in the National Assembly have been kept in families for generations, and the military regularly uses political turmoil as an excuse to seize power, the analysts said.

"There's no hope with the current political parties, because none are committed to public service" but instead are based on personalities, dynasties and profit, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore University of Management Sciences who was targeted for arrest by the government of President Pervez Musharraf last year for his outspokenness. "They don't have democracy within themselves, and they have poor leadership. The ruling class in Pakistan has lost its sense of humanity and balance. They are not givers, they are takers."

Bhutto and Sharif to blame?
Pakistan's electoral system has produced only two leaders of national stature in 20 years -- former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto, the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) from the southern province of Sindh who was assassinated while campaigning Dec. 27, and her arch rival Nawaz Sharif, leader of a branch of the Pakistan Muslim League called the PML-N, who hails from central Punjab province.

Numerous political analysts, politicians and others said that Bhutto and Sharif, who both served twice as prime minister and spent most of Musharraf's rule in exile, deserved a large share of the blame for tarnishing democracy here by using their terms in office and their political parties to enrich themselves and their families and to trounce all rivals.

Even when they were in exile, "Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both had policies of making sure no popular leader came up within their parties who could challenge them," said a Western diplomat who would talk about internal Pakistani politics only on condition of anonymity.

"Both saw themselves as leaders for life," he said, "and both saw their parties as family businesses that were intended to be passed on to heirs, and BB made that clear in her will," a reference to Bhutto's stipulation that the PPP chairmanship be turned over to her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, after her death. Zardari subsequently arranged for the couple's 19-year-old son, a student at Oxford University who has lived most of his life abroad, to become co-chairman of the party.

Babar Awan, a senior member of Bhutto's party, laid all blame for the country's troubled democracy on the military.

"There was a military intervention in every decade that subverted the constitution, abrogated the law and undermined the ongoing democratic process, and it takes time to recover from such blows," he said, citing Pakistan's four military dictators and 32 years of army rule since its founding in 1947.

"Political norms need an enabling environment to flourish. The internal groups -- people doing politics in the name of religion, ethnicity, regionalism, tribes -- can only vanish when popular politics are allowed to continue," he said. "If Pakistan gets a chance of continuity for four, five or six elections, it will turn into a two-party democracy."

Under the circumstances, "when you have an undemocratic party where the leader is trying to let no one challenge her," the PPP leadership had little choice but to recognize ethnic and regional realities in selecting its new leaders, said Ali Ahsan, the 31-year-old son of Aitzaz Ahsan, a top PPP official and the leader of a pro-democracy movement of lawyers seeking to reinstate an independent judiciary.

Ali Ahsan was interviewed in his father's law office, in an annex of the family home in Lahore where his father is under what the government calls preventive detention because of his pro-democracy activities. A closed white door between the office and the residence was emblazoned with a sign reading "Sub Jail," as was the house's front gate. Police posts were set up around the property.

The PPP leadership "wanted blood lines, and it was important to anoint a Bhutto at the top," Ali Ahsan said. Particularly in Sindh province, he added, PPP supporters "will vote for a lamppost if the Bhuttos tell them to."

Nonetheless, Bhutto's death "potentially opens the way to greater party democracy," he said. "The control of Benazir Bhutto was absolute. The control by others will have to be more inclusive."

But many people say Pakistan needs a quicker, cleaner break with the past. Political analyst and former army general Talat Massood called Bhutto's killing "such a great opportunity for the PPP to transform itself into the largest democratic party in the country, and go on issues and ideologies, but they missed that opportunity and went back to the same stupid dynastic politics."

'A revolution that is irreversible'
Even the Pakistani cricket hero Imran Khan has been unable to break the feudal lock on Pakistani politics, and analysts note he has it all: good looks, household name, squeaky-clean reputation, charisma. A national icon, Khan led the Pakistani cricket team to its only World Cup championship in 1992 and founded the country's premier cancer hospital, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital in Lahore, which treats 75 percent of its patients for free.

Khan formed his own political party, the Pakistan Justice Movement, in 1996, but it has won only one seat in the National Assembly in 12 years. The main barrier, he complained, has been campaign financing. But Khan said he was as optimistic about the future as he's ever been because of rising demands to restore Pakistan's independent judiciary and press, both of which were suppressed by Musharraf when he declared emergency rule for six weeks starting in November.

"It is a revolution that is irreversible," Khan said. "They'll never get the genie back in the bottle."

That is the conclusion of leaders in virtually every political camp, who argue that independent judges and free media are the keys to democratic growth in Pakistan.

"I told Musharraf there are two fronts you can't open in this country -- against the judiciary and the media -- and he did both," said Mushahid Hussain, a top adviser to the president and the second-ranking official in his political party.

"The bigger mistake was turning on the media, because his most enduring legacy was presiding over a media revolution, with the introduction of more than 50 private television channels in the country," Hussain said. "But he's trying to shoot his way through."