The Bhuttos and the Sharifs
By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
As in India, its South Asian neighbor, dynastic politics has played a major role in Pakistan’s history. Take Bilawal Bhutto, of the Bhutto family. He currently chairs Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which was founded by his grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1967. Bilawal’s mother, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto led the Pakistan People’s Party until her assassination in 2007 in Rawalpindi.
In fact, for Pakistan the tradition of dynastic succession is not new; rather, it dates back to the British colonial era. Shezad Baloch, a columnist with The Express Tribune, told The Diplomat, “Ever since partition, Pakistan has been under the shackles of dynastic politics. As a result, the country has not had a good leader. All current leaders are carrying the legacy of their forefathers. Unfortunately, during the British colonial era, the forefathers of the current leaders were handpicked.” He adds, “A few families have been ruling the country for decades, and can thus be held responsible for Pakistan’s unstable politics and economic shambles.”
The Bhutto dynasty has an impressively long history. Shah Nawaz Bhutto, father of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, led the Indian princely state of Junagadh before independence. As for Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, after founding the Pakistan People’s Party in 1967, he served as president of Pakistan from 1971 to 1973 and as prime minister from 1973 to 1977. Some historians believe that it was his refusal to give East Pakistan autonomy that resulted in a civil war, which ultimately led to the founding of Bangladesh.
Zulfiqar Ali’s favorite daughter Benazir was twice prime minister of Pakistan: from 1988 to 1990 and then again from 1993 to 1996. When Benazir was assassinated attempting a comeback in 2007, a new member of the Bhutto dynasty emerged, Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari. He became Pakistan’s president, a position he held until 2013, and is still co-‐chair of Pakistan People’s Party.
Now the baton has passed to Bilawal Bhutto. Addressing PPP supporters in Karachi in 2014, Bilawal proclaimed that he would revive party and officially launch his political career. He told the crowd that the only way to save Pakistan is to save Bhuttoism and the PPP.
According to respected Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain, “all the political parties are in fact extensions of powerful families with hereditary leaderships. Their politics mainly revolve around managing and strengthening family interests. Elections are all about gaining control of state patronage. Clan, tribe, caste and biradari [patrilineage] play a major role in the perpetuation of dynastic politics.”
The Bhuttos are not Pakistan’s only political dynasty. The Sharif family rose to power during the era of the former Dictator General Zia-‐ul-‐Haq (1977-‐1988). Nawaz Sharif is currently the prime minister of Pakistan, a position he has held twice previously, from 1990 to 1993 and from 1997 to 1999. Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz Sharif is chief minister of the Punjab province of Pakistan. Other relatives can be found in the national and provincial assemblies. Shahbaz’s son Hamza Sharif, and Maryam Nawaz, daughter of the prime minister, are also leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-‐Nawaz (PML-‐N). Maryam in particular has been drawing increasing media attention, with a recent high-‐ profile trip to Washington D.C.
Dynastic politics may appear to be obsolete, but it is not disappearing from Pakistan anytime soon.