Dynastic politics wins the day in Pakistan


Funny thing, isn’t it, democracy? Yes, it’s good old Pakistan, where we’ve been hearing ad nauseam that democracy is the answer to that benighted country’s problems. Not hardly, I venture to suggest.

What we have is, in a very low turnout (even by Pakistani standards) a victory for the Pakistan Peoples Party, vehicle of the martyred Benazir Bhutto. And thereby hangs a tale.

The PPP, of course, is a member party of the Socialist International, but don’t hold that against it. The “Second” has much more outré affiliates than the PPP.

No, the interesting thing about the PPP is what it says about Pakistan, another of those countries where “democracy” has a specialised meaning. In Pakistan, democracy has traditionally meant that the peasantry once in a while get the opportunity to choose which bunch of feudal lords will rob them blind. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not too different from America, where beer-drinking Democrats have this year been offered a choice between three millionaire attorneys.

So here’s the PPP, a party which, as Tariq Ali will tell you at great length if you ask him, arose from the popular movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the late 1960s. And yet, it still failed to break the mould of Pakistani politics in any structural sense. It may have had a populist profile, and been supported en masse by dirt-poor peasants, but it still remained the personal property of the Bhutto family, one of the biggest collections of feudal magnates in the country. Not to mention a family much given to doing their business in Sopranos style.

You had good old Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, probably the best of the bunch for what that’s worth. Ayub Khan’s foreign minister, he had broken with the dictatorship on the grounds of it signing an unpopular peace treaty with India. For all that he showed a lot of personal courage on unexpectedly finding himself leader of the democracy movement, with a background like that it shouldn’t have been surprising that he capitulated to anti-Bengali racism and the army’s genocidal campaign in East Pakistan in 1971. Nor that he would increasingly lean on the army to shore up his own rule, particularly as he stepped back from his more demagogic positions.

But then, Zulfiqar Ali won’t be remembered for the failures of his populism. What he’ll be remembered for is his judicial murder at the hands of the Zia dictatorship, on charges of having a political opponent rubbed out. Was he guilty? Quite possibly, but he was still fitted up. And so the myth of the martyr comes to overshadow the record of the politician, and Zulfiqar Ali was libertyvalanced just as thoroughly as his daughter would come to be.

And so the party passed to the youthful Benazir. You can see why the Western media and intellectual types loved Benazir. It was partly I suppose the novelty of a powerful female politician in a conservative Muslim country. But there were other things Benazir herself brought to the show. She was extremely telegenic, in fact stunningly beautiful when she was young. She was fluent in English. (As well she might have been, what with it being her first language. Her Urdu was pretty bad and her Sindhi diabolical.) She spoke movingly about her father’s martyrdom, about her duty to Pakistan, and pressed all the right buttons (and continued to do so up to her death) about “moderation” and “development” and “democracy”.

But the tragedy of the PPP has never really been the gap between rhetoric and reality – every polity has that. The tragedy has been the continual disappointment of the hopes raised in the party’s poor supporters. Look at the first Benazir government. The main feature of this was PPP apparatchiks, who had obviously learned that they might not have much time before the military ousted them, filling their boots in the most ostentatious style possible. The second Benazir government was more of the same, only with even more rampant corruption and the added bonus of the Taliban being propelled to power on her watch. Not to mention the still outstanding questions about the assassination of her brother Murtaza, who had been exiled from the Family. I don’t want to take away from the woman’s personal courage, but personal courage does not necessarily make for good politics.

So what now? With the principle of dynastic succession now firmly established, the largest party in Pakistan filled its vacant leadership not with anything as prosaic as an election, but with the reading of the martyred leader’s will. This means the new leader is Benazir’s teenage son Bilawal, who was raised in Dubai, lives in England and is some years off being able to vote in Pakistan, never mind run for office. And until Bilawal achieves his majority, Mr 10% gets to be regent of the party.

Yes indeed, with the prospect of a coalition between Mr 10% and the straight-as-a-die Nawaz Sharif, the future looks bright for Pakistan. Or at least for the more entrepreneurial members of its political caste.


  1. chris y said,

    February 20, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Just so. Plus, of course, the Wali Khan dynasty resumes its rightful position in charge of NWFP, after the unfortunate misunderstandings of the last few years.

    On the other hand, what feasible outcome would have been better? The Pakistani socialist movement is utterly marginal. At least Musharraf and the Pashtun and Baluchi religious nutters got a kicking.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    February 20, 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Well, that’s one thing. NWFP will still be a basket case, but it’s nice to see the mullahs get a slap.

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