The Dynastic Republic of Pakistan

With elite families having a firm grip on the levers of power, can Pakistan truly become a representative democracy?

Indian Paintings

Political dynasties exist all over the world. From the Gandhi family in India to the Kennedy or Bush families in the United States, most political systems at one point or another get dominated by dynasties. Even China’s Xi Jinping could be loosely defined as a dynast — his father was Vice Chairperson of the National People's Congress.

Pakistan, however, is unique in the way its political system works. While many of us see political parties, particularly the PML-N and the PPP, as dynastic ones, the reality is that the entire system is dominated by dynasties, particularly in Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan.

To understand how this system works and guards its interests, I invited Dr. Hassan Javid to the podcast. Dr. Javid, an Associate Professor of Sociology at LUMS, has conducted some phenomenal research on democratization and the relationship between class, power, and the state.

You should take out the time to watch the complete discussion, but here I will share a few interesting and important facts Dr. Javid shared on the podcast.

Dynasties are pervasive across the system

Dr. Javid’s research shows that about 400 families have dominated Punjab’s political system since the 1970s, with electable / dynastic candidates often moving from one party to another based on the shifting sands of power in the country.

The PTI is no different, with research showing that over 80 percent of the party’s winning candidates in the 2018 elections in Punjab were dynasts. A significant proportion of these candidates recently defected to the party, meaning that they did not have any ideological commitment to what the PTI stands for.

Dr. Javid described this dependence on dynastic politicians as a chicken and egg problem: to win elections, parties need the support of influential families. Those that put newer candidates on the party ticket - something the PTI did in 2013 - find themselves outcompeted and outmaneuvered. The result is an electoral race to the bottom, where parties must seek to gain the support of dynasties across the country.

This system of influence has spread its tentacles across other organs of the state, with members of the most influential dynasties having familial links into the bureaucracy, judiciary, and the security establishment.

It is these linkages, not just money, that makes dynastic politicians important to the political party seeking to come into power.

The status quo guards its interests, not yours

With dynasts dominating the system, reform, especially progressive reform that delivers equitable and sustainable economic growth, remains a pipe dream. This is why rent-seeking lobbies like the sugar lobby continue to extract money and resources from the state, despite widespread economic consensus that the sector needs serious reforms.

While the country suffers one economic crisis after another, life for these dynasties remains good; in fact, it keeps getting better. So there is no incentive to reform or help out the masses in any major way.

Additionally, the structure of the political economy is such that the voter blocs commanded by the dynasties expect some sort of political patronage: voters rely on the well-connected and well-heeled dynast on everything from helping out at the thana to greasing the wheels of the system to provide things like gas connections.

Many think that the voters make the choice to vote for the dynast due to ignorance about their own interests. But this is not true: the voters make a very calculated choice, recognizing that a weak and inefficient state cannot provide them the things they need. But the dynast can.

So how do things change?

I asked Dr. Javid this question and his response was quite depressing: it will be a long, painful slog to change the structures of Pakistan’s political economy. While urbanization weakens the traditional linkages that perpetuate dynastic politics, the reality is that the status quo has a firm grip on power. Additionally, successive attempts by the security establishment to intervene in the political process actually reinforces the dynastic system — pushing these electable politicians into preferred political parties reinforces their power and establishes them as the “swing bloc” in elections.

The goal then, must be to promote pro-poor parties and make efforts to organize people around a progressive economic agenda. But even there, the status quo dominates and has proven quite effective in clamping down on any outside efforts to rally voters to a pro-poor economic cause.

I learnt a lot during this conversation, but it thoroughly depressed me. I do not have much to share in terms of solutions or a path forward. I will just say that the way the system is stacked up, it seems highly unlikely that Pakistan’s masses will be ruled by a system that truly cares about making their lives better.