An elite-only representation?

November 12, 2023

Despite voters largely hailing from middle and lower classes, their representation in political parties and assemblies has been abysmal

An elite-only representation?


fter the dissolution of the National Assembly in August 2023, there was a lot of speculation and conjecture about the holding of elections within the time prescribed in the constitution. Finally, the Election Commission of Pakistan has reached an agreement with the president and announced that the polls will be held on February 8. Subsequently, political parties have started their activities and election campaigns in order to appeal to, attract and mobilise their voters and supporters. Though a majority of these voters come from middle and lower classes, their representation, both in political parties and the assemblies, has been abysmal.

Why has their representation been so little despite constituting a permanent absolute majority of the votes in the country? This question can be answered by defining and analysing the political structure and power grid in Pakistan.

While Pakistan’s political structure can be analysed through several lenses or perspectives, elitism is perhaps the most suitable approach. It precisely grasps the complex cultural and historical system, holds Asaf Hussain, the author of Elite Politics in an Ideological State: The Case of Pakistan. This approach, to him, encompasses the most significant political, social and economic factors relevant to the state’s political development. While elaborating and analysing elites and political development in Pakistan, the author categorises the elite in three distinct groups and each group into two subgroups: precolonial (religious elite and landed elite), colonial (military elite and bureaucratic elite), and postcolonial (industrial elite and professional elite). These distinct elite groups, he opines, compete with one another in order to dominate and influence political development in the country.

In other words, Pakistan’s political structure, which provides the basis of power in the society, is that of the elite-mass type — where governing elites operate centrally as direct “power holders of the body politic,” the non-governing elites wield extensive institutionalised influence, and non-elites are effectively prevented from exerting any real impact on the political system.

Extending further, the power structure is relatively pluralistic with no single elite able to maintain supreme control. Colonialism, ethnic heterogeneity, industrialisation, Islam and historical precedents all contribute and influence the tug of war that makes it impossible for a single group to absolutely control the political power grid. In short, in this elite power structure, political activity is almost completely the reserve of the elites. If middle and lower strata become involved, it is only when one or other elite groups politically mobilises them in an attempt to wrest control from the elite already occupying the position. These non-elite groups are kept at bay. They are denied any entry into this elite power structure.

Contrary to Hussain, Mohammad Waseem emphasises the persistent, perilous and devastating conflict between the two elite groups in Pakistan: the state elite and the political elite. The former is generally identified with the ‘establishment.’ The latter represents political parties and parliament, which draw on the constitutional edifice as the supreme source of legitimacy. This situation has led to a bifocal nature of state authority. The two elite groups draw heavily on two power centres: the middle class and the political class, respectively. The state elite has been typically recruited from the middle class. The political elite, though divided along ideological and identity lines, has strong roots in the locality (district) and the region (province). As the constitutional tradition is upheld by the political elite as the gateway to power, the much-touted goals of good governance, elimination of corruption and moral uprightness are the manifest ambitions of the middle class.

In short, both Hussain and Waseem agree that the political structure of the country is dominated by elite groups. They compete and conflict with one another for the sake of dominating the power grid. They have been working in tandem — supporting and protecting one another on the one hand and prohibiting the entry of non-elites to become shareholders on the other.

This is crystal clear from the number of non-elites holding party positions in mainstream political parties and representation in the assemblies. Apart from the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, all mainstream political parties including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (apart from a few exceptions) have been offering both party positions and tickets to the elites. All of them aim at winning the elections. Therefore, they go after winning horses – electables – who hail from elite groups.

In addition, whenever the non-elites try to establish their own political party or launch a social movement, the elites use state apparatus to suppress and eradicate such parties and movements with an iron hand. They are often dubbed as anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistan (traitors). Therefore, it becomes easy to target them with state machinery. This is evident from the history of the fate of the movements and parties of the Left.

Non-elites have become disenchanted with the elites in general, and the mainstream political parties in particular, because they have completely failed to address their problems on the one hand and ensure their access to party positions and representation in the assemblies on the other. Therefore, they are looking for alternative options. Many of them have joined hands with rightist religio-political parties such as Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and Milli Muslim League. Others are looking towards the leftists to come forward and play an active role in national politics. However, this seems a distant dream for a number of reasons.

Pakistan, an elite state, was founded by the elites for the elites. Non-elites do not have any say. Therefore, mainstream political parties and assemblies are dominated by elite groups. They make laws and devise policies that protect their interests and ensure their dominance in the political structure on the one hand and prohibit the non-elites to become part of the elite structure on the other.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University. He is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at His X handle: @MazharGondal87

An elite-only representation?