Looking Beyond Feudal Politics in Pakistan

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 22, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- 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."

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."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company