Sunday May 26, 2024

Who gets to do politics in Pakistan?

By Raja Rafi Ullah
May 27, 2022

Despite its associated shortcomings, democracy in its varying forms, is often touted as the most desirable system of government worldwide.

To be fair, the foundational philosophical tenets of democratic governance are indeed very inclusive and representational. Most modern democratic systems advocate for universal suffrage in which every adult in the population in some form or manner has a say in the election of their leaders and lawmakers. However, the ‘right for everyone to vote’ is a crucial yet only one facet of the total picture at hand.

Another pivotal factor that needs to be addressed is the right for anyone within a democratic system to run for office. This right to run for office exists in most democratic systems worldwide, yet in real terms there are significant barriers to entry that automatically preclude many from entering the political space or have any realistic chance of getting elected.

The same is true for Pakistan, where only those who have money, influence and hereditary, or often a combination of all three can effectively have chances of entering politics and being successful. These candidates are often colloquially referred to as ‘electables’ in Pakistan, and most often than not, political parties have strong preferences when it comes to giving them their party nominations (tickets).

We economists often tend to think of societal realms where humans interact or transact as markets. And the ultimate aim is to strive for competitive markets where negligible barriers to entry exist for producers/business. Agreed, that hardly any pure competitive markets exist in the real world, yet still competitive markets with minimal ‘barriers to entry’ are the ultimate aim. When markets are competitive, consumers are fundamentally better off as they have more options and better quality of products – and that too at cheaper rates than in uncompetitive markets.

If one were to extend this logic to the case of politics, the existence of structural factors that are persistent and which effectively result in giving only a few the option to run for office and be successful at it, presents a fundamental problem. Voters are time and again forced to choose between the same faces again and again, despite little or no returns to their vote.

It would be rather naïve to aim for a system where anyone can effectively run for office, as political campaigning requires significant funds – something that is true all over the globe. Another interesting observable fact in Pakistan is the persistence of political dynasties, from individual constituencies to the very top of the executive positions in government. Very often than not, even if one has the funds to run for office, the fact that one does not belong to a political family means that it is quite difficult to run for office and compete with candidates who have dynastic political backgrounds.

There are only a handful of studies on the persistence of dynastic politics in Pakistan. One such study was carried out by Dr Ali Cheema, Dr Hassan Javaid and Farooq Naseer in 2013. Using data from Punjab, they observed that from 1985 to 2008 on average about two-thirds of elected national-level legislators (MNAs) and about half of top three candidates across all constituencies were dynastic politicians. Although these observations were for the Punjab province only, one can reasonably imagine the situation in other provinces being similar if not bleaker. Particularly given the finding that there is an inverse correlation between dynastic politics and urbanization – in provinces that are less urbanized than Punjab one can expect more dynastic politicians. Here it should be noted that, there is a need to investigate the case of Sindh further, as despite being the most urbanized province in terms of percentage of population, most of the urban population lives in only a handful of urban agglomerations. The effect of such uneven distribution across the province on dynastic politics needs to be explored in more detail.

Furthermore, if one were to compare the predicament in Pakistan to other regional countries, the prevalence of dynastic politics in the Indian Lok Sabha is about half of what was observed by the researchers in the above mentioned study.

Having said that, the political landscape in Pakistan is morphing, albeit at a gradual pace. The country has the second highest rate of urbanization in South Asia, which is altering the manner in which people vote and elect their representatives. However, certain changes are needed to make the political landscape more accessible to non-dynastic politicians. One key step is to have empowered local bodies governments elected through regular elections.

Local bodies elections offer an easier entry into politics for those candidates who do not belong to political dynasties. However, due to a number of reasons – the chief being our fascination with centralization – we have ignored local government elections throughout history. With the second phase of local government elections recently completed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and with other provinces set to hold their respective local government elections later this year, steps are being taken in the right direction. It is also important that the Election Commission of Pakistan and other relevant authorities stay true to the commitment of holding these local bodies elections despite the looming possibility of an upcoming general election.

Coming to our main contention, the entire point of having democracy is to achieve some level of representative governance in a society. However, if the political superstructure is set as such that it practically excludes a major chunk of the population, then the entire process itself is put into question. It is true that influential dynastic political families exist throughout the world even in developed countries, yet their persistence in post-colonial states like Pakistan seems to be profoundly more pronounced.

The writer is a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad and holds a Master’s degree from Cornell

University, USA.