With election fever gripping the nation, this would be an appropriate time to asses Pakistan’s political system and the different players that make up the country’s political medium. Whilst many elements that make up Pakistan’s political system will partake in the upcoming elections, it is important to remember that Pakistan’s political system is more than just elections.
It should also be borne in mind that no matter who is elected on 25 July 2018, Pakistan’s political system will never really change. Pakistan’s current system is a continuation of the British Raj occupation that abolished Islamic rule in the Indian Subcontinent. Even though the Muslims shed their pure blood to establish Pakistan in the name of Islam, it was the British Parliament that created Pakistan’s initial legislation under its Indian Independence Act of 1947.
Even though Pakistan produced its first constitution in 1956, this and every subsequent constitution, including the present 1973 constitution, has been framed around secular British law.
Foreign interference has been a virus that has infected every part of Pakistan’s political system – it was a system created by the departing British Empire only to be eventually dominated by the US. Elections, presidents and prime ministers are largely transitional and do not change the fundamental direction of a country. Pakistan’s political history has been dominated by the potential threat of India after partition, then the Soviet expansion into the region in the 1980s and today, America’s continued attempts to dominate the region. Successive regimes in the country merely implemented different policies in line with these regional developments.
Pakistan’s political medium is composed of the following participants.
Pakistan’s military is the most important institution in the country. It manages the country’s security, foreign policy and the countries strategic assets. Pakistan’s army leaders and Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) exert a controlling influence over most of Pakistan’s core state policies. This power is the reason why it has ruled the country for over half of Pakistan’s history. During this period, various leaders of the army took over the civilian apparatus which impacted not just the country’s political system, but the country as a whole. The most dramatic of these was during the era of General Zia-ul-Haq when the Islamic sentiments within the army were used to support America’s proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
When Pervez Musharraf became the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) he was forced to contend such sentiments, but after the events of 9/11 General Musharraf was given an ultimatum to join America’s ‘war on terror’ – and in line with America’s reversal of Islamifying the army -Musharraf began the process of clamping down on those who espoused Islam. Musharraf hounded the Islamic-minded offices. He sought early retirement of some, deployed others to far afield posts and a few were court-martialled.
General Ashfaq Kayani continued with this agenda. However, he removed army personnel from civilian roles, which was a legacy of the Musharraf-era and aggressively pursued America’s War on Terror into the tribal areas. Under Kayani’s leadership the countries strategic doctrine and posture were altered in January 2013, the India centric doctrine was revised and now defines internal threats as the greatest risk to the countries security.
India is no longer seen as a threat to Pakistan’s security and America’s War on Terror is the primary focus for the military.
The Sharif Family
As is common in the Indian Subcontinent, Pakistan’s political system has also been dominated by dynastic families who have ruled for long periods. The Sharif family form a key dynastic family in Pakistan’s political system. Nawaz Sharif has been in power three times now from 1990-93 and 1997-99, until he was overthrown in a coup by General Musharraf. He was then in power from 2013 to 2017. Nawaz Sharif himself is a business magnate from an industrial family that dominates Pakistan’s commercial landscape. As the owner of Ittefaq Group, a leading steel mill conglomerate, he is one of the country’s wealthiest industrialists. In 2005, Daily Pakistan reported that the Sharif family is the fourth wealthiest family in the country and second wealthiest political leader with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion.
When Nawaz Sharif has been in power his governments have been littered with scandal, corruption and incompetence. On the three occasions Nawaz Sharif led the government, he virtually bankrupted the nation.
Nawaz Sharif, when he has been in power, has served the American agenda for the region.
He confirmed his pro-American position in a WikiLeaks cable where he stated to the then Ambassador Anne Patterson that “he was ‘pro-American’. However publicly, he sometimes criticises US policies.” He then went on further in the leak that “he was grateful to the US for selecting General Kayani as the Pakistan Army chief.” This explains the widely held belief among Pakistani politicians that US help is crucial in seeking top official jobs in Pakistan.
The Bhutto Family
The Bhutto family is the equivalent of the Kennedy family in the US and has always been a large land-owning family from Sindh. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was established in 1967 and has ever since been dominated by the Bhutto family, who owns over 10,000 acres of land in the Sindh province. Sindh today remains the support base for the Bhutto family.
Since its inception, the PPP was headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was the ruler of Pakistan from 1970 until a military coup removed him from power in 1977. His subsequent hanging in 1979 led to his daughter Benazir Bhutto, taking the leadership of the PPP. She took power twice in Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996. During both her terms in office Benazir proved she was an incompetent ruler and corruption was the centrepiece of her governments. On both occasions her governments were dismissed, failing to even complete their terms. She went into exile from 1998 spending the next decade shuttling between Dubai, UAE and the UK working to reverse her flagging fortunes. When General Musharraf’s position began to weaken, talks ensued in 2006 between US officials and British officials to bring Benazir back to power. Whatever the rhetoric at the time, her return was a deal between the US and Britain that was highlighted in some detail by the Washington Post in December 2007: “For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan’s most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington’s key ally in the battle against terrorism.”
Asif Ali Zardari emerged as the ruler on a wave of optimism due to the death of Benazir Bhutto – Zardari had however been long groomed by the US. Prior to becoming President of Pakistan, Zardari was groomed by Zalmay Khalilzad (former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN) to play a role in the post-Musharraf era. The New York Times reported their relationship in much detail in 2008: “Mr Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. A senior Pakistani official said that the relationship between Mr Khalilzad and Mr Zardari went back several years, and that the men developed a friendship while Mr Zardari was spending time in New York with Ms Bhutto.
Mr Khalilzad, being a political animal, understood the value of reaching out to Pakistan’s political leadership long before the bureaucrats at the State Department realized this would be useful at a future date,” the official said.
The Ambassador “did not make policy or change policy, he just became an alternate channel.” After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari manipulated Benazir’s will and assumed co-chairmanship of the PPP with his son Bilawal. In effect, Zardari became the leader of the PPP. Zardari then scrupulously sidelined all those elements of the PPP that could potentially undermine his authority.
As the next general election inches closer, the PPP has been badly discredited through numerous corruption scandals, sheer incompetence and nepotism. This is why Bilawal Bhutto is being promoted to reconnect traditional PPP values with the disgruntled PPP voter base.
Former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan has seen his fortunes reversed after spending over a decade in the political wilderness. Imran Khan has been involved in Pakistan’s politics since 1996, when he established the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But for long it was never a real political party that had strong roots in society or a support base. For most of its short history, it did not have any notable politicians amongst its ranks.
As a result, Imran Khan was forced to turn to established politicians who were dripping with corruption. He had to reach out to other politicians and asked them to join him to strengthen PTI, and thereby give the party a strong chance of performing well in the upcoming elections; many notable politicians and technocrats from the Musharraf-era, such as Khurshid Kasuri, who was central to America’s War on Terror as well as infamous politicians from PPP such as Shah Masood Quraishi. All of this has led to a detrimental effect on his message as many wondered how independent he was, after allowing many politicians into his party that previously the PTI campaigned against. But with all the political players marred by corruption, Imran Khan is viewed as the best of the worst options.
The US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, when asked by the BBC regarding the possibility of an anti-US government in Pakistan -in case Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan get elected in 2013 elections, said that he has met both the leaders who have assured a pro-US government.
The Mohajirs (Migrants)
Upon the partition of India in 1947 many Muslims found themselves on the Indian side of the border and thus migrated to what became Pakistan to the tune of eight million Muslims. The Mohajirs sacrificed much to come to the new nation created in the name of Islam. Their demands – like all of the Muslims that migrated – was to be recognised, provided with security, honour and employment. However, successive governments failed them again and again. By the time the 1970s came to an end, the Mohajirs gathered together on the basis of ethnicity as the system had failed them.
In 1978, a young student leader by the name of Altaf Hussain established the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation (APMSO) and campaigned for the right of Mohajirs at Karachi University. Then in 1984, the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) was officially launched with the aim of securing rights for Mohajirs and recognition as the fifth nationality in Pakistan. The MQM message resonated amongst the Mohajirs of Sindh’s largest cities Karachi and Hyderabad. What launched them as the third political party in the country was the patronage provided by General Zia-ul-Haq. In order to halt the rise of the PPP through their Sindh support base, the MQM would be funded and armed as a counterweight. By the time the 1990s came around, the MQM was at war with the government and the army was called in to maintain law and order on the streets of Karachi. This continued with both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif when they were in power.
Each community in Pakistan is aligned to certain political parties. The MQM was set up initially as a Mohajir party but now tries to portray itself as a party for all Pakistanis, hence changing its name from Mohajir Qaumi Movement to Muttahida (United) Qaumi Movement. The Awami National Party (ANP) is a party the Pashtun community support.
Each party is vying for control of Karachi and to attain its own interests – not much different from the other political parties in Pakistan.
The Punjab province has historically dominated the other provinces whether in civil, political or military life. All of this is seen negatively by the other provinces as they have been largely ignored and has led them to make use of violence to protect their interests.
Mohajirs are considered to comprise around 21% of Karachi’s population. As Pakistan’s largest city with a population exceeding 20 million and Pakistan’s economic and trading hub, controlling the provincial assembly of Sindh will give any political party a significant say on the national level.
In Pakistan, corrupt clerics have hijacked Islam for their own political objectives. They have used the sincere emotions that the people have for Islam, to gain political influence and have misled them and other sincere scholars along the way. These individuals who have attempted to project an image that they are the ones who are looking after the interests of Islam, are in fact no different to the ‘secular’ politicians who inhabit the same political system. These clerics use Islam to get to power, yet abandon it once they have gained their positions, choosing to participate in the failed secular system as per every other politician.
Their biggest failure is the fact that they have never presented Islam as a system for governance in Pakistan and have focussed on individual aspects of Islam. Whilst there are sincere elements amongst the clerics, they are drowned out by the opportunists amongst them – which has strengthened corrupt politics in the country. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), which was a coalition of Islamic parties that included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, formed the government in the then NWFP in 2002 and led the coalition government in Balochistan.
These provinces were the key staging grounds for America’s war in Afghanistan which spread to the tribal areas. Aside from some anti-US rhetoric, in terms of actions, rather than solving Pakistan’s many problems through Islamic policies, they are also part of the problem now.
Whilst the USA is not part of Pakistan’s political medium, it does have influence over its participants. America showered Pakistan with aid and arms during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and similarly has once again through military aid and economic aid, beholden the nation’s political medium to its interests in the region.
Through the US Ambassador in Pakistan, the CIA presence in the country as well as the envoy to the region and the various US officials that constantly make trips to Pakistan: the US has been able to gain influence over Pakistan and dominate its institutions and political medium.
The US, through its presence in Afghanistan, was able to reorientate the military in Pakistan to focus on the tribal areas instead of India. The US has even bypassed Pakistan’s troika set-up, i.e. the Presidency, the Prime Minister and the COAS, and deal directly with those in charge of different institutions in Pakistan.
It is accurate to state that Pakistan is not an independent nation, but rather a nation subordinate to a foreign power, i.e. the US. The political system in Pakistan is dominated by dynastic families, feudal landlords and opportunist groups, individuals and politicians. Their sole aim is to gain power and enrich themselves, irrespective of the consequences. When in power they legislate in a way to protect and maintain their own interests. Elections are the life-support to this subordinate system and this is the reason why even a sincere individual will be unable to bring change through such a political medium dominated by the US on the one hand and opportunists on the other hand.
The clearest example of American dominance of Pakistan’s political medium is what took place with regards to Raymond Davies, the US defence contractor who murdered Pakistani citizens in broad daylight in Lahore, January 2011. The New York Times (NYT) outlined in a detailed report the role different elements of Pakistan’s political medium played when the US was exposed of planting an army of secret agents to sow chaos and violence as part America’s war in Pakistan.
The State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon all had separate channels to request visas for their personnel, and all of them led to the desk of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s pro-American Ambassador in Washington. Haqqani had orders from Islamabad to be lenient in approving the visas.
As street protests increased due to the possibility of the Pakistan Government cutting a deal over Raymond Davis with the US, the US ambassador in Pakistan approached both the ISI Chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha and General Kayani in getting Davis out of Pakistan. General Pasha ordered ISI operatives in Lahore to meet the families of the men killed and impose a settlement in the form of blood money. On 16 March 2012, the court hearing for Raymond Davis took place and the NYT outlined what took place: “the judge ordered the courtroom be cleared, and General Pasha’s secret plan unfolded. Through a side entrance, 18 relatives of the victims walked into the room, and the judge announced that the civil court had switched to a Shari’ah court. Each of the family members approached Davis, some of them with tears in their eyes or sobbing outright, and announced that he or she forgave him”. The ISI operatives whisked Davis out of the courthouse through a back entrance and pushed him into a waiting car that sped to Lahore airport. The government of Pakistan colluded with the US through America’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter. The ISI imposed America’s solution upon the families who lost their husbands, brothers and sons and the judiciary was influenced by the countries institutions and was manipulated once again. This is the political medium in Pakistan, established by the departing British, dominated today by the US and used by opportunists to enrich themselves. This system has broken the backs of the people and what Pakistan needs now is new politics.