Dynasties and Clientelism in Pakistan

THE hallmark of Pakistan’s political elites is their narrow base. A limited number of families have dominated Pakistan’s legislatures since the country’s inception in 1947.1 These families traditionally are from rural landowning and tribal backgrounds. The situation in the twenty first century remains largely unchanged. Indeed, the principal change may be the expansion of dynastic politics to include families from urban, religious and military backgrounds.

The politics of kinship networks in Pakistan, as in South Asia more generally, is firmly anchored in the politics of clientelism,2  which in turn is closely related to caste, ethnicity and identity.3 Clan, tribe, caste and biradari4 play a major role in electoral contests and in defining populist politics. These ties also legitimize the political family’s hold on resources and the passing on of these resources as legacy to new generations of family members.

This essay proposes a typology of dynasties in Pakistan, beginning from the traditional rural dynasty of the Bhuttos, going on to the urban dynasty of the Sharifs, and concluding with the newer dynasties with religious and military backgrounds. Along the way, it shows how these dynasties are rooted in the politics of patrimonialism and clientelism.

One important distinction is in order at the outset: Although the politics of dynasty in Pakistan has often been associated with the politics of feudalism, the two are not the same. As a general phenomenon, feudal politics has over time weakened in Pakistan. Many feudal families with landholding roots have been wiped out electorally, except for occasional inclusion in caretaker cabinets by the army. These include the Khuhros of Larkana, Tiwanas of Sargodha, Daulatanas of Vehari, the Qazi Fazlullah family of Sindh, the Gardezis of Multan, the Nawabs of Qasur and the Mamdots of Ferozpur/Lahore.5 But dynastic politics remains alive and well. This is not to say that current dynasties in Pakistan do not have feudal roots; they do, but politics has evolved to prefer historical succession of a few specific families.

Benazir Bhutto inherited the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) upon her father’s death, and in 2007 it passed onto her son and husband through a clear instrument of succession, i.e., a handwritten will, in the custody of a trusted domestic help. The Bhuttos are a unique case, for they combine not only popular following, but as Gazdar puts it,6 a cult of martyrdom, drawing on the widespread belief that the senior Bhutto, his two sons and daughter were all directly or indirectly murdered at the behest of state agencies. The cult of the Bhuttos also blends in with the narratives of sacrifice prevalent in Sindhi folklore and mystic poetry, which glorifies sacrifice to achieve the higher and sublime ideal.7

The cult of the Bhuttos has deepened over the decades as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder at the hands of a split Supreme Court bench in 1979 was always a contested act in public memory. This collective view was further bolstered by the admission of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on a television programme in 2007 that the Supreme Court judges were under pressure by the military regime to deliver an anti-Bhutto verdict. However, this cult would not have deepened had his daughter Benazir Bhutto not struggled in jail, house arrest, solitary confinement and exile amidst brief interludes of power, to continue the populist brand of her father’s politics.

Benazir Bhutto was elected twice as Pakistan’s prime minister, in complete defiance of the patriarchal norms and clerical decrees declaring a woman’s election as head of state un-Islamic (based on a contested saying of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). These two terms in office were not smooth and did not give enough room to Benazir Bhutto to implement the populist programmes that her party had envisioned for the poor. Furthermore, a plethora of corruption scandals dogged her image as a political leader and ruler. This is why, for years, she was in political oblivion and stayed in exile for nearly a decade until 2007 when she returned to Pakistan.

This second homecoming marked a political milestone, when millions received her at the Karachi airport, thereby confirming her legitimacy as the dynastic inheritor of Bhutto politics, as well as establishing her own independent legitimacy as a leader. Her first homecoming on 10 April 1986, under the regime of General Zia ul Haq, was a pure act of succession politics and therefore settled her claims of being the only inheritor of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s political legacy.

This status of being the sole inheritor did not go uncontested, as her brother Murtaza Bhutto too had claims over the succession as an eligible, patriarchal candidate. Murtaza Bhutto returned to Pakistan during Benazir Bhutto’s tenure as the prime minister and attempted to mobilize the loyalist cadres within the ranks of the Pakistan Peoples Party to make that claim real. However, his claim to the dynasty was truncated by his tragic murder in 1996, when his sister was the prime minister and this incident was ironically used by the detractors of the PPP (chiefly the security establishment and the right-wing political parties) to undermine the legitimacy of Benazir Bhutto, by articulating direct allegations of her husband’s complicity in her brother’s murder. It is a separate matter that a high-level judicial commission exonerated Benazir Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a few years later when Benazir Bhutto was not in office. However, though the grand conspiracy as noted by the judicial commission has to date not been unearthed, in public memory the allegation continues to plague the credibility of Benazir Bhutto’s husband, who emerged as the successor after her murder in December 2007.

Following the murder of Murtaza Bhutto, his widow Ghinwa Bhutto, formed a faction of the PPP and has pitched Murtaza’s flamboyant daughter, Fatima Bhutto, as the real successor of the Bhutto dynasty. Fatima Bhutto faces Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, as the officially nominated heir and clearly this saga of succession is far from over. Fatima Bhutto in her recent book has reimagined the intra-dynasty feud and has been consistently critical of her late aunt and her husband. In fact, such was her rancour in 2008 after her aunt’s death, that a leading academic and activist of Pakistan, authored an open letter to Fatima Bhutto8 and stated: You and your stepmother argue that the Bhutto name should not determine political success nor should it give privilege. I agree, but then why does Ghinwa Bhutto lead her faction of the PPP as Murtaza’s widow? Is it not her husband’s name that she exploits and is the Bhutto “legacy” not being used here, and, Fatima, is not the media and political and social circles focusing on you only because you are a Bhutto?

This open letter sums it all and indicates how the use of dynastic mode not only provides legitimacy, but paradoxically, also contests legitimacy. Thus, dynasty becomes the political framework of understanding and negotiating politics in a post-colonial society such as Pakistan.

Turning away from the Sindh province, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Group (PML-N) in the Punjab is headed by Shahbaz Sharif on behalf of his brother Nawaz Sharif. The latter emerged as a non-feudal option for Punjab politics in the 1980s under military rule and enjoyed two terms as the chief minister of the province (1985-90) before rising to the position of prime minister, first in 1990 and again in 1997. In his second term, he appointed his brother Shahbaz Sharif as the chief minister of Punjab. The military coup of 1999 led to the imprisonment and subsequent exile of both the brothers in 2000. The Sharifs’ struggle against their erstwhile benefactors, i.e., the Pakistan Army, allowed them to enter the usual arena of civil-military contest and legitimated their populist positioning in the country.

The Sharifs’ exile ended in 2007 and after the 2008 elections, the younger brother was reappointed by the party as the chief minister of Punjab. As the younger Sharif had also earned the reputation of being a good administrator in his earlier tenure, his return to power was seen as a formidable re-entry into the power matrix. Currently, the elder Sharif is the Quaid (or the great leader) of the party while the younger brother is the elected head of the party. In the recent years, the son [and daughter] of both the Sharifs are being groomed as the next generation of leaders.

The Sharifs are part of the urban-mercantile-industrial elite of post-1947 Pakistan and their support base is firmly entrenched in the cities and towns of Pakistan. However, their politics especially its patrimonial nature remains not too dissimilar from the tribal and feudal context. This is the dilemma of Pakistani politics. As Lodhi puts it: The personalized nature of politics is closely related to the dominant position enjoyed through-out Pakistan’s history by a narrowly-based political elite that was feudal and tribal in origin and has remained so in outlook even as it gradually came to share power with well-to-do urban groups. The latter is epitomized by the rise of Mian Nawaz Sharif who came from a mercantile background. While different in social origin and background, members of this power elite share a similar feudal-tribal style of conducting politics: personalized, based on primordial social hierarchies, characterized by patronage-seeking activity and preoccupied with protecting and promoting their economic interests and privileged status.9

A parallel dynasty, an offshoot of the Muslim League from the Punjab has also emerged in the past three decades. Former Speaker and Chief Minister of the Punjab province (2002-2008), Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, has succeeded his cousin and brother-in law, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, as the chairperson of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q). Chaudhry Shujaat’s brother, Wajahat Hussain, and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi’s son, Moonis Elahi, have already taken their first political footsteps by contesting provincial assembly seats in the 2008 elections. The genesis of the Chaudhrys is located in their opposition to the Bhuttos in the Punjab. Their elder Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi (father of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain) was victimized by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s when he was the prime minister of the country. After the military coup of 1977, the military junta found a natural ally in the disgruntled and influential politicians from the Punjab in their effort to forge a grand anti-Bhutto alliance in the Punjab. During the 1980s and 1990s, the Chaudhrys were allies of Nawaz Sharif until the military coup of 1999. For the next decade, these politicos were staunch supporters of General Musharraf and formed a new, pro-military faction of the Muslim League, PML-Q, which is now a political force in its own right.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the secular Pashtun nationalist politician, Asfandyar Wali Khan, whose claim over the party is also family based, leads the Awami National Party (ANP). Khan is the son of Abdul Wali Khan and grandson of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who was a companion of Gandhi and an ally of the Indian National Congress in the early twentieth century. Prior to Khan, the ANP was led by Wali Khan’s wife, Begum Naseem Wali Khan. After the death of Wali Khan, an intra-dynasty conflict led to the ascension of the son as the party chief.

The religious parties such as the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and the national Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) are no exceptions either. Maulana Fazlur Rahman inherited the leadership of JUI from his father, Mufti Mahmud, and formed his own faction, JUI-F, when some of the ideologues refused to accept his leadership. His faction remains the active one. Similarly, JUP leader Shah Ahmad Noorani was succeeded by his son, Anas Noorani. Incidentally, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), though considered a relatively non-dynastic political formation, too has facilitated the rise of Samia Raheela Qazi, daughter of Qazi Hussain Ahmad to the position of a Member of Parliament.10

Not unsurprisingly, the military rulers in Pakistan too have not been averse to creating a political legacy. General Ayub Khan’s (1958-69) son entered politics while his father was at the helm of affairs. He allied himself with right-wing politics in the later decades and rose to various positions of power. In the Musharraf era, his son also entered politics, was elected and became minister of state for finance. Similarly, the sons of General Zia ul Haq too have been active in politics since their father’s death in 1988 and have been elected from their respective constituencies more than once.

Another powerful general who headed the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), General Akhtar Abdur Rehman, who died along with his boss Zia ul Haq in 1988, also left behind a political legacy. Both his sons are now active politicians and have consistently won elections. In all three cases, right-wing nationalistic ideology, wealth amassed during arbitrary rule and the overt support of intelligence agencies has been evident. In all the three cases cited, rural or tribal networks have mattered less than using the family legacy and creating a network of clients in the local constituencies.

The civil-military bureaucracy that has ruled Pakistan for most of its existence, directly or indirectly, has also encouraged the emergence of dynastic politics in Pakistan. The military in Pakistan has found it easier to negotiate and handle political elites due to the family-politics-syndrome. If anything, the military has also joined in the trend and their long periods of rule have contributed to the fortification and perhaps entrenchment of political dynasties. They too have capitalized on the insecurity of politicians due to the meddling of unelected institutions such as the military by keeping it all in the family.

Leaning on Charles Tilly’s theory of the state, Dipankar Gupta talks of political families having a monopoly over violence the ability to control, resist and inflict violence.11 This is a critical qualification needed to enter politics and can only be gained by those belonging to an established tradition of dynastic rule. This monopoly of violence is necessary because politicians as patrons need to be able to protect constituents by translating their interests to the state in exchange for a vote.12 The dynasty thus becomes an informal extension of the state in countries where democratic politics has not yet taken strong roots. In such societies informal institutions, such as the biradari and ethnic bonds, can skew public opinion. In such situations, family control over violence is the best guarantee for a party’s survival.

There is a lot of discussion around the mechanisms of control that these families can exercise. The ruler buys the loyalty of his clients in return for appointments to public office.13 For example, in India, Indira Gandhi’s patrimonial strategies solidified her own position in power and secured her son’s succession to office. This patrimonial patron-client relationship is also evident in Pakistan where political parties are clientelist in nature. Once a leader is secure in his position of power, a circle of advisors and a successor in the event of death or ouster is hand-picked.14

The predominance of family politics also has much to do with the money, time and connections that can only come from being part of the family. Kristoff points to an increase in the size of constituencies and the rising costs of campaigning that make it difficult for an unfinanced unknown to enter politics due to the political monopoly that these families have.15

The voters in essence do not vote for a party but for a candidate who is expected to win and has access to patronage16 and thus the vote rarely reflects individual choice. In South Asia, the patron-client relationships are feudalistic and embody the relationships of personal obligation and sentiments. The politician depends on kinship networks to secure biradari (Pakistan) or faction (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka), or caste based (India) support at the grassroots level that has a track record of providing patronage and development to his constituency.17 The legacy of martyrdom that surrounds the Bhutto family is collectively remembered as a sacrifice to expose injustices in society. Pakistan’s middle class professionals have never paid the price that politics requires. The price includes long periods in jail, exile, harassment by the intelligence services, death threats and awareness that far too often the law offers them minimum protection when they are in opposition.

What this means for the other side of politics, the minority that is actually concerned with meritorious leadership, is that they rarely become part of populist politics. Indeed, intellectuals and economists are more willing to serve military regimes than elected civilian ones, in part because those with a professional rather than a family background are at a disadvantage in electoral politics. Furthermore, Pakistan’s urban professionals have an ingrained disdain for the rural and feudal politicians who return to the legislatures each time elections are held. Hence, their penchant for technocratic solutions and willingness to work with military dictators.18

What is the way out of this morass? A lack of democracy within political parties has been termed as a major impediment in improving the way electoral politics works. Consequently, only enhanced internal democracy and established rules of the game can make way for merit based leadership of political parties. Pakistan’s recent experience of agreeing to a national framework of decentralization via the 18th Amendment has somewhat weakened the imperative of holding intraparty elections. Until the passage of this constitutional amendment in 2010, there was a constitutional imperative to hold internal elections within political parties. Nevertheless, the Political Parties Act 1962 still demands that parties hold internal elections and present reports to the Election Commission.

Therefore, the role of an Election Commission becomes paramount in transitional democracies such as Pakistan. Only independent, legitimate and powerful commissions can regulate the affairs of political parties and in the long term allow for the growth of a less clientelistic mode of politics. Similarly, the judiciary too has a vital role to check instances of conflict of interest, nepotism, patronage in violation of the formal rules and general impunity with which Pakistan’s powerful families run their political parties. In this context it is also important that the political parties expand their popular support base outside the confines of their limited ethnic, sectarian or clannish pockets.

In the case of Pakistan, regular elections are a sine qua non for the evolution of a more plural and inclusive democratic culture. Frequent disruptions in democracy would only ensure that political oligarchies remain in business, either as junior partners of the military or as martyrs of democracy.19

First published in Seminar Magazine (2011)

* The author would like to acknowledge the assistance provided by Saadia Gardezi, a Teaching Fellow at the Lahore School of Economics.


1. Zahid Hussain, House of Feudals,  Monthly Herald, Karachi, April 1985; cited in Maleeha Lodhi, Beyong the Crisis State, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2011.
2. For a detailed discussion see Herbert Kitschelt, Linkages Between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities, Comparative Political Studies 33(6-7), 2000, 845-879.
3. Mariam Mufti, Dynastic Politics in South Asia, South Asian Journal, 2009.
4. A sub-caste usually organized around ethnicity of traditional professions or groups.
5. http://pakistaniat.com/2007/12/26/politics-and-the-urban-middle-class/. In addition, family names such as Gilanis, Qureshis, Tamans, Mehars, Bijranis, Rinds, Raisanis, Jhakaranis, Makhdums of Hala, Shahs of Nawabpur, the Khan of Kalabagh’s almost always are returned to the legislatures.
6. Haris Gazdar, Pakistan’s Precious Parties, Economic and Political Weekly, 9 February 2008.
7. For instance, the Sindhi poetry of Shah Abdul Bhitai entails struggles and sacrifices by characters such as Marvi, Sassi and Punhal to either reclaim the motherland, unite with the beloved or seek salvation.
8. Nighat Said Khan, An Open Letter to Fatima Bhutto, The Friday Times, Lahore, 25 January 2008.
9. Maleeha Lodhi, Beyond the Crisis State. Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2011.
10. Kunwar Idris, Leaders by Inheritance, Dawn News, 9 March 2008.
11. Dipankar Gupta, Dynasty and the Price of Politics: Do We Really Get the Leaders We Deserve? Mail Today, 3 January 2008.
12. Mariam Mufti, 2009, op cit.
13. Bhagwan D. Dua, Federalism or Patrimonialism: The Making and Unmaking of Chief Ministers in India, Asian Survey 25(8), August 1985; James C. Scott, Patron-Client Politics and Political Change in South East Asia, American Political Science Review 66(1), March 1972.
14. Mahmud Ali, Electoral Politics in Bangladesh: An Experience in Transitional Democracy, in Subho Basu and Suranjan Das (eds.), Electoral Politics in South Asia. K.P. Bagchi and Company, Calcutta, 2000.
15. Nicholas D. Kristoff, The Dynastic Question, The New York Times, 31 January 2008.
16. Andrew R. Wilder, The Pakistani Voter: Electoral Politics and Voting Behaviour in the Punjab. Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.
17 Mariam Mufti, 2009, op cit.
18. This is not too dissimilar from the case of Bangladesh where a military backed and quasi-legal technocratic government was initially supported by the intelligentsia. Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief adviser of this government, was a former WB official.
19. Rosa Brooks, A Dynasty isn’t a Democracy, Los Angeles Times, 3 January 2008; Saima Altaf, Dynastic Succession and the Culture of South Asian Politics, The News, 27 March 2008.
Editorial, Merits and Demerits of Family Parties, Daily Times, 2 March 2008.
H.D.S. Greenway, Dynastic Politics at Work, The New York Times, 8 January 2008.
Hendrik Hertzberg, Dynastic Voyage, The New Yorker, 29 October 2007.
Hussain Haqqani, Beyond Benazir, Los Angeles Times, 16 January 2008.
Niaz Murtaza, Understanding Dynastic Politics, Dawn News, 9 August 2010.
Subrata K. Mitra, India: Dynastic Rule or the Democratization of Power? Third World Quarterly 10(1), January 1988.
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