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The sultans of Pakistan

How a few wealthy dynasties dominate the nation’s politics, and get even richer.


How a few wealthy dynasties dominate the nation’s politics, and get even richer.

Last month, the Election Commission of Pakistan, manifesting its independence, declared  Nawaz Sharif one of the country’s richest parliamentarians and revealed his assets: six agricultural properties, a house in Upper Mall, Lahore, Rs 126 million in seven bank accounts, and other properties under the name of his wife, making him a billionaire. This may be explained by the fact that he belongs to an affluent family of businessmen. His father, Muhammad Sharif, a Kashmiri from Amritsar who moved to Lahore in 1947, had slowly built up a smelting works. He was stripped of his property in 1972 by the wave of nationalisation ordered by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but the privatisation decided by Zia-ul-Haq (who blessed the elevation of Nawaz to the post of Punjab chief minister in 1985) helped the family recover its assets. The Sharifs also benefited from the investments they made abroad, including in Saudi Arabia, where they returned (the family was already a regular visitor before) after Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999. But when the Sharif family returned from exile, it wasn’t this rich. At that time, Asif Ali Zardari was estimated to be the richest politician and second-richest man in Pakistan. The Sharif brothers came fourth, according to one ranking.

Such personal enrichment of politicians is related to the scale of corruption that affects Pakistan. Zardari, who in 2008 reportedly owned several estates in the UK and the US can, in this regard, be held up as a symbol. In an investigative report for The New York Times, John Burns showed that Zardari had not only spent $4 million to purchase Surrey Palace and spent $660,000 in barely a month, but also that this money indeed came from ill-gotten gains. In 2003, the Swiss judiciary determined that Benazir Bhutto and Zardari were guilty of money laundering and had to return $11.5 million to the Pakistani state. A gold bullion dealer also reportedly paid $10 million into the Bhutto-Zardari account after the Benazir government had granted him a monopoly on gold imports in Pakistan. It is not for nothing that Zardari was known as “Mr 10 per cent” when he was minister. Whether Nawaz has also enlarged his fortune by resorting to dubious means has not been established, but the fact that the head of the executive has also become extremely rich is reminiscent of the kind of regime German sociologist Max Weber called “sultanism”, a blend of the personalisation of power and patrimonialism he first detected in the Ottoman Empire.

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While top leaders amass fortunes through largescale corruption, there are other forms of corruption on a smaller scale involving National Assembly members. A report by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency based on the declarations of assets by elected members of the assembly showed that, in 2010, the average value of an assembly member’s assets was three times higher than the average value of assets of members of the previous National Assembly, many being the same people.

The fact that politics pays explains, to a large extent, why it has become a family business: elected representatives not only try to transmit their ideological legacy to their scions, but also their political business. Most parties today are associated with a lineage. This is, of course, the case of the PPP, whose official head, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, was so designated (along with its “regent” Asif Ali Zardari) by his mother Benazir’s handwritten testament in a practice that harks back to that of material inheritances. The Bhutto-Zardari line (to which Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur, elected in Larkana in 2008, also belongs) is opposed by the one founded by Benazir’s brother, Murtaza Bhutto, whose widow Ghinwa established a separate PPP. The other major party, the PML-N, is only in its first generation but has managed to maintain phratry unity because although Nawaz is the party “Quaid”, his brother Shahbaz is the official chairman and has been chief minister of Punjab since 2008.

The Awami National Party (ANP) has in some regard entered its third generation, because even if Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan did not form a party, he started a movement — the red shirts — which spawned the NAP created by his son, Wali Khan, whose son, Asfandyar Wali Khan, leads the ANP today. The PML-Q also belongs to the club of the “three generation-plus” parties, since the son of Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi (former chief minister of Punjab and son of Chaudhry Zahoor Elahi, a lieutenant of Ayub Khan after 1962), Chaudhry Moonis Elahi, was elected to the Punjab assembly in 2008.


These lineage practices are also becoming customary among the Islamic parties. Maulana Fazlur Rehman succeeded his father, Mufti Mahmud, as head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam — or at least the faction that bears his name, the JUI(F). Anas Noorani also replaced his father, Shah Ahmad Noorani, as head of Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan and the Jamaat-e-Islami, despite its being known for the key role played by ideology, is also affected, to a lesser extent, as the daughter of former leader Qazi Hussain Ahmad was elected to the parliament.

The percentage of members of the National Assembly and members of provincial assemblies who belong to a political family increased from 37 per cent in 1970 to 50 per cent in 1993, before falling to 44 per cent in 2008, according to The Herald. Since 1970, 597 families have controlled 3,300 seats out of the 7,600 across generations. The Legharis have had 14 elected representatives in the family since 1970.

During the last general election in May 2013, the popularity of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf partly reflected the rejection of this political class by the urban middle class. Like its Indian homologue, this social group was looking for new, clean politicians out of dynastic politics. But the PTI could only come second in terms of valid votes and third in terms of seats. Well-entrenched parties are not easy to dislodge from power, precisely because they have money and muscle. And the urban middle class is in a minority anyway.


Sultanism, therefore, may continue to prevail in Pakistan, all the more so as the army has also become a kind of commercial enterprise. This process, whose outcome Ayesha Siddiqa called “military inc” or “milbus” (for military business), uses foundations, the oldest and largest of which is the Fauji Foundation (FF). The FF has developed its own business enterprises, from sugar mills to cement factories. The air force followed its example and established the Shaheen Foundation (which manufactures a wide variety of products, from pharmaceuticals to shoes), and the navy has the Bahria Foundation (which, aside from manufacturing paint, is also involved in industrial bread-making). If armymen become businessmen, they may also indulge in corruption and create dynasties.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

First published on: 31-01-2014 at 03:11:20 am
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