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With Scandals And Dynasties, Pakistan’s Political Parties Struggle To Stay Relevant

Opposition leaders Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (left) and Maryam Nawaz of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) arrive to attend an anti-government rally in Lahore on December 13, 2020.
Opposition leaders Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (left) and Maryam Nawaz of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) arrive to attend an anti-government rally in Lahore on December 13, 2020.

A week after Pakistan’s opposition alliance fell apart, political parties are facing questions over their role and relevance in a country where the ethos of democracy is often put to the test.

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) disintegrated after one of its major members, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), refused to join nine others in resigning from the parliament to force Prime Minister Imran Khan into a new election. With the future of the opposition’s campaign uncertain, many Pakistanis are questioning whether political parties have any power beyond protecting the interests of the establishment and the dynasties behind them. The establishment is a euphemism for the wide-reaching influence of the powerful military.

The PDM leaders garnered vocal popular support over the past six months for vowing to end “the state above the state” purportedly created by the military to manipulate politics. But the PDM’s leaders squabbled publicly over the potential spoils after the movement momentarily shook Khan’s government by winning byelections and defeating his finance minister in an important Senate vote earlier this month. The prime minister is safe for now, despite his administration’s reliance on a wafer-thin majority in the parliament.

Keeping Establishment Supreme

“These are not political parties. They are mere political tribes,” journalist Wusat Ullah Khan said. “They will do whatever their leaders, who act as tribal chiefs, say.”

Khan, a columnist and television presenter, poked fun at Pakistani politicians, who are often worshipped by their supporters. “None of them is a Lenin, Mao, Che, or Ho Chi Minh who can change the system,” he told Dawn Television, a private news outlet. “They are the kind of folks who are satisfied with momentary signals from the establishment if it gestures to stay neutral in the power struggle.”

The Pakistani military denies any involvement in politics. "The people who are making speculations, I will tell them again: Do not drag the army into politics," military spokesman Babar Iftikhar told journalists in February amid rumors that military leaders were conducting backdoor negotiations with PDM leaders.

The country’s checkered past, however, paints a different picture. Four military dictators have directly ruled the country for nearly half of the country’s 73-year history. Three assumed power in bloodless coups that overthrew elected governments. All manipulated politics by breaking, banning, or weakening political parties and sentencing their leaders to prison, exile, or execution. None of Pakistan’s 18 elected prime ministers completed a term in office.

Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says that given the deep-seated history of the deep state, people had expected the opposition to offer more resistance after it blamed the army of rigging the 2018 parliamentary election in Khan’s favor. Its promise to force generals out of politics resonated with a public dissatisfied with the level of democracy on offer.

“It fired up people’s imaginations and projected their image as a genuine opposition as their rhetoric focused on military leaders instead of the civilian government,” he told Gandhara. “But with time, people sensed the major parties within the PDM did not trust each other as they tried to cut separate deals with the establishment,” he added. “This undermined their credibility.”

Khattak has spent nearly five decades in politics. At the helm of several political parties, he endured prison, torture, and exile. Like politics everywhere, he says, Pakistani parties pursue power but their reliance on hereditary leaders forces them to make too many compromises.

“Political dynasties are a major obstacle in developing a democratic movement and culture in Pakistan,” he said. “Even the younger leaders and heirs of various dynasties are bound by the interests of their older lot, which binds them to the status quo,” he added. “Across South Asia, political dynasties degenerate through generations.”

Big Money’s Game

Pakistan’s parties can broadly be divided into Islamist, ethno-nationalist, left, and right-of-center. Most were established by the current leaders’ parents or grandparents.

Khattak is trying to change that. He is consulting like-mined activists and leaders across Pakistan to establish a new political party that will resist the military’s interference within the party system and politics at large.

“Our aim is to build a people’s alliance to restore genuine democracy, a constitutional system, and fundamental rights in Pakistan without compromising with the establishment,” he said. “The generals are unlikely to cede power without popular resistance.”

Suleman Khan Kakar, a political analyst in Islamabad, however, argues that corruption in Pakistani politics is so endemic that a quick turnaround is unlikely. He says the role of big money in enabling political parties to campaign and contest elections has redefined the rules of the game.

“You cannot participate in politics today without massive funds,” he told Gandhara. “This is why most political parties now count billionaires among their main leaders.”

“Most leaders have amassed ill-gotten wealth, so they do not become irrelevant,” he added. “It is a vicious circle.”

Kakar spent more than a decade interacting with political elites as a senior official of the nongovernmental National Democratic Institute. He says democracy within parties has shrunk considerably.

“When pressured by the government or establishment, they keep silent on key issues such as forced disappearances, fundamental human rights, and landgrabs,” he said. “This has undermined public trust in political parties.”

Before assuming power, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) party campaigned against PDM members PPP, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulma-e Islam (JUI) and others for years. It presented itself as a clean alternative to their allegedly corrupt leaders and promised justice and fair play.

But an initial electoral success in 2013 attracted high-profile turncoats to his party before the 2018 vote. Many later landed significant cabinet posts. Observers say that like its predecessors and political competitors, the PTI relies on military support and seeks to downplay its scandals amid an economic downturn.

Matiullah Jan, a freelance journalist in Islamabad, says Pakistan’s parties are beholden to their past.

“They are still trying to cast their past mistakes as political moves,” he told a gathering of the relatives of victims of forced disappearances this week. He cited parties’ support for the military in establishing courts to try terrorism suspects and a toothless commission for finding the disappeared and their siding with the current government to grant General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the current army chief, an extension in office.

“When we fail to acknowledge our past failures, how can we ask for truth and reconciliation?” he asked.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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