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Pakistan and Feudalism

Philip Bowring // Published January 1, 2008 in Asia Sentinel
It will take more than winner-take-all politics to ease tension in the wake of Benazir Bhutto’s murder


The appointment of Benazir Bhutto’s son and husband to the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in the aftermath of her assassination may seem unexceptional given the dynastic tendencies of most south Asian democracies.

But in Pakistan’s case, hereditary succession does more than confirm that name recognition is often more valuable than either personality or policy in a family incumbent. It is also a stark reminder of two other troubling aspects of Pakistan’s condition. First, is the link between democracy and feudal society, of which the Bhuttos – among others ‑ have long been a part. Second, is the tendency for elected governments, including those of Bhutto and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to be significantly more corrupt than their military counterparts, a concern given added weight now by the role of Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari, as the effective leader of the PPP, with their son as titular head.

Pakistan’s feudals are also extremely westernized and secular, with their overseas education, ready access to money and access to elite international circles. Oxford-educated Benazir herself spoke English much better than either Urdu or the Sindhi of her feudal subjects in and around the grand family estate in Larkana. While some remember her as an open-minded woman, at home either in Oxford rooms or shopping at Harrods, others remember the arrogance she projected when in power, more queen than prime minister, a blood-line successor to her deposed and executed father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was himself born to a prominent politician whose writ extended back to British colonial times.

The secularism and internationalism of the Bhuttos was always real enough. Benazir’s grandfather married a Hindu who converted only on marriage and, though a Muslim, played an important role at the time of partition in enabling one of the Muslim-ruled princely states in what is now Gujarat to accede to the majority’s wishes and join India.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s second wife and the mother of all his children was Iranian.

The secularism adds to the Bhutto appeal in the west, and the feudalism helps sustain the vote base. But neither characteristic is much help in addressing Pakistan’s many divisions, whether between the Punjab and Sindh, between religious zealots and the pious but un-fanatic majority, or in dealing with Baluchi separatism or the Pushtu-speaking, Taliban-supporting tribes of  the tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province.

It is the inability of Pakistan’s democratic governments in general to focus on the multifarious problems rather than money-making and politicking that have from time to time led to military interventions that may be welcomed for a time but engender their own sets of problems.

Nor have the Bhuttos always been friends of democracy. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto got his first ministerial job under the first military ruler, Ayub Khan, and made his name as Ayub’s firebrand foreign minister before quitting to form the PPP.

Projected into power in the wake of the loss of East Pakistan, Zulfikar Bhutto’s agenda was a mix of nationalism and a populist socialism that saw the nationalization – with predictably negative effects ‑ of much of Pakistan’s industry and commerce while making token efforts to end the feudal land-owning system.

But the elder Bhutto was at least a charismatic leader until he was ousted by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and executed in 1979 on blatantly political conspiracy to commit murder charges. His daughter’s two terms as prime minister were marked by a distinct lack of achievement and many allegations of corruption. But she also proved tough and courageous in exile and always fought to regain what she saw as her rightful position.

It is hard to see her husband inheriting much of his wife’s positive legacy. First, there are the corruption allegations – which have surfaced in Swiss and English courts, not just in Pakistan. Benazir and Zardari were convicted in absentia in a Swiss court of accepting bribes from two Swiss companies. They were given prison sentences and ordered to return US$11 million to the Pakistan government. A huge estate in England, whose ownership by Zardari was initially denied, is also subject to court proceedings.

Perhaps as important there is the shadow of Murtaza, Benazir’s brother, who was murdered outside his house in 1996. Murtaza had been at odds with Benazir, the prime minister, both over policies and the behavior of Zardari, who was a minister in her government. An inquiry into Murtaza’s death concluded that it had been an extra-judicial killing conducted by the police on orders from higher up. The identity of the higher authority was never established, but Murtaza’s daughter Fatima accused Zardari of complicity.

Meanwhile the main alternative democratic contender, Nawaz Sharif, has plenty of baggage of his own, including his rise to prominence under Zia’s military government – the one which hanged Benazir’s father. Ironically Nawaz himself, who dominates Punjab politics as surely as the Bhuttos dominate the Sindh, was ousted by the military not long after winning an electoral landslide. Nawaz has always wavered between secular and religious streams in Pakistan politics.

None of this means that Pakistan would not now benefit from an election. Whatever his past utility, Musharraf is now a central part of the problem. His treatment of judges and lawyers has shown him to be desperate and has alienated much of a middle class that had been benefiting from economic growth stemming from the pragmatic, pro-market policies pursued by Shaukat Aziz, Musharraf’s technocrat finance minister from 1999 and prime minister from 2004 until November 2007.

Meanwhile the inability of the military government to stop the wave of assassinations and bombings has undermined its credibility. Whether another government can do better is not assured. But some new solution is needed. Perhaps the Bhutto killing, plus the spate of other recent attempts on political figures, will drive the feuding forces together. Maybe they – Musharraf and the military, and the two main parties – can agree that elections can help, but only if they use them for creating some kind of post-election national unity government, led by civilians but giving face to the military.

Longer-term it would help if the electoral system were changed to enable proportional representation or some other mechanism for ending a “winner takes all” situation that leads to division and aggravates the tendency of those in power to seek maximum rewards in a short time.

It would help, too, if the Pakistani military and its powerful intelligence agency were not so often accused by the west of colluding with the Taliban and militants. The reality is that the frontier region remains an insoluble problem, just as it was when the British repeatedly tried to subdue the area more than 100 years ago. For Washington to act as if the tribal areas are a recent phenomenon is a fantasy.  The Taliban issue first has to be addressed in Afghanistan through whatever mix of force and negotiation is best. Pakistan, with US help during the 1980s, may have fathered the Taliban but Pakistanis now mostly understand that Taliban-style militancy is now a threat to themselves.

As it is, although fundamentalist views have in the past received only small support at the polls, they may gain from the current level of disorder, and claims by some that Pakistan is a dysfunctional state propped up by the west. That’s still an exaggeration. But if things keep going wrong, it may not be two years from now.