Familiar faces are back in power in Pakistan. The new president, Asif Ali Zardari, is beginning his second stint as head of state. The head of government, Shehbaz Sharif, returned to the office of prime minister this month, having served in the role from 2022 to 2023.

The two men are faces of political dynasties that have dominated Pakistani politics for decades: the Bhutto-Zardaris and the Sharifs. Zardari is the widower of the late former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was tragically assassinated in 2007. Shehbaz is the brother of three-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Both Nawaz and Zardari are paving the way for their children to inherit their mantles. Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam, is now chief minister of Punjab — Pakistan’s largest province. It’s a position he and his brother once held. Zardari’s son, Bilawal, recently served as foreign minister, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. In the next election cycle, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will likely seek to become prime minister. Each has had two relatives serve in the role before.

These two dynasties have once again united to form an unwieldy coalition government. They are backed by the powerful army as counterweights to the popular, imprisoned ex-prime minister, Imran Khan, from whose party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), the February elections were stolen.

The collusion between these forces — all former foes — is aimed at preserving the status quo. But it may be its last gasp.


Terminal Decline

The supporters of the Bhutto-Zardaris and Sharifs are jubilant. Zardari, who faced imprisonment in the 1990s and saw his wife murdered, is hailed as a “master tactician” and the “ultimate political survivor.”

But the mustachioed politician is no Mandela or Machiavelli. He has long been one of Pakistan’s most corrupt politicians, presiding over an entrenched feudal order in one of Pakistan’s most backward regions: rural Sindh.

A New York Times cover story from 1998 on the corruption of the Bhutto-Zardari family.

Zardari’s supporters recoil at such characterizations of the president and his province. They accuse his critics of ethnic bias. But, as the data shows, the real travesty is what’s being done to the people of Sindh. Simply put, they are being left behind.

Half of Sindh’s children are stunted. A major reason is the water. It’s filled with fecal bacteria. And yet the state of drinking water is immaterial to Zardari and those close to him. His son, Bilawal, is known to prefer imported Evian water.

Modesty is not a family trait. The heir to the Bhutto-Zardari dynasty wears expensive Yeezy sneakers when visiting barefoot children in a dilapidated school. Yet this is a light extravagance compared to his $3500 Gucci loafers.

In much of developing Asia, the challenge these days is to ensure that new entrants into the labor force have the skills that match the demands of the market today and in the emerging knowledge economy.

But in rural Sindh, the battle remains more basic. Literacy rates in rural Sindh have actually declined in recent years, registering at 43.3 percent in the 2020-21 fiscal year. Just a quarter of the region’s female population aged 10 and above can read.

The Bhutto-Zardari-dominated Pakistan People’s Party has ruled Sindh since 2008. And it’s been a major force in the province since the 1970s. This failure is ultimately theirs.

Pakistan’s challenges extend beyond Sindh. Its economy is in a deep rot. On virtually every fundamental human development indicator, Pakistan trails behind its Asian peers. That includes literacy.

Even after billions in economic aid from the United States and the United Kingdom, Pakistan’s literacy rate remains flat: at just under 60 percent. In the late 1990s, Pakistan largely matched its Asian peers in human development. It is now in their rearview mirrors.

Asian democracies like Indonesia and Malaysia are far from perfect. They share many of Pakistan's attributes, including corrupt, dynastic politics. But they have managed to significantly uplift the quality of life in their countries. While Pakistan too has seen change, compared to its peers, the pace is glacial. The spoils are mainly eaten at the top.

Hybrid Regime

Anchoring Pakistan's awful status quo is its army. It is a force that speaks the language of reform and change. And through the Special Investment Facilitation Council, created in 2023, the army is effectively steering the country's economic policy.

Yet at a time in which Pakistan is facing its gravest economic crisis in decades — the economy shrank last year and inflation remains above 20 percent — the army has brought back to power two of the country's most corrupt political dynasties.

In part, this is due to the army's lack of options. It has long been in a constant state of political rebalancing. This time around, its chief problem is Khan, who ran afoul of the army in late 2022, breaking with it on foreign policy and senior military appointments.

Khan has defied the rules of Pakistani politics. With its leader imprisoned and much of the party dismantled, Khan's PTI nonetheless secured a plurality of National Assembly seats in the February elections. And that's according to the official results. PTI likely won a majority of seats before the brazen rigging began in the overnight hours after election day.

For now, Khan's party is stuck navigating a drawn-out bureaucratic process, appealing the results of individual election races. It will also continue to face the wrath of the Pakistani state. Mohsin Naqvi, a trusted ally of the Pakistan Army chief, is rumored to be the next interior minister. Pakistan's prisons will have to make more space for politicians and social media influencers.

PTI may be contained for the coming months. But its popularity will endure. Pakistan will have to enter into another International Monetary Fund program. And that means more budget and subsidy cuts that make the life of the middle class more difficult.

The army is hoping for a major agreement with a Gulf Arab state, like Egypt's recent $24 billion coastal land development deal with the United Arab Emirates. But the scale of potential transactions in Pakistan would be far smaller — and restricted to the energy, mining, or defense sectors. Pakistan's exit from this rut will be long and difficult.

Western Silence

One problem Pakistan's military-backed government does not face is pressure from Western governments. The brazen rigging in February's general elections has been met with banal calls by the United States and other Western powers for an investigation into what the State Department has underplayed as "irregularities."

This is clear diplomatic doublespeak. Western governments are well aware that given the capture of Pakistan's institutions by the army, the robber will be investigating the crime. Election tribunals in Pakistan can take up to 180 days to come to a decision on individual election results challenged by the declared loser. By the time these tribunals make their determinations, the election results will have been a fait accompli anyway.

Western governments will also continue to look away at the daily abductions of political activists and citizen journalists in Pakistan. They will go through the motions, providing funding for the professional "civil society" for projects on "human rights and fundamental freedoms" as their own policies buttress an authoritarian regime in Pakistan.

Few have sought to explain the silence of the West on the deepening of authoritarianism in Pakistan. Yet the reasons are quite clear.

The Pakistan Army has once again proved its utility to the West. It's helped arm Ukraine, providing vital munitions in its war of attrition with Russia. It's also maintained a ceasefire with New Delhi that has enabled India to redeploy 10,000 soldiers away from near Pakistan toward its frontier with China. The Bhutto-Zardaris, Sharifs, and the army are all now keen on normalization with India. This is an area of convergence with Gulf Arab states too.

For the West, meeting the challenge posed by resurging great powers China and Russia is paramount. The people of Pakistan, their rights, and their aspirations, ultimately do not matter. On this, they are in firm agreement with Pakistan's rulers.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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