By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal

A self-explanatory and ominous pointer to the direction Pakistan is heading is the section on “modern history” in Wikipedia entry on Pakistan where each of the three “democratic eras” are matched by “military eras”; the fourth (2008—to present) remains open ended. The first democratic era (1947-1958) was followed by the first military era (1958-1971) which lasted longer than the democratic era by 3 years; the second democratic era (1971–1977) was, once again, shorter than the second military era (1977–1988) by five years; the third democratic era (1988–1999) was slightly longer than the third military era (1999–2007), and the fourth and present democratic setup (2008–present) may prove to be the first major change in this pattern in the checkered history of this country which burst on the world scene in 1947 amidst bloodshed and migration of two million people across the new borders which a British man drew flying over the land.

Even if the pattern is broken and Pakistan matures into a polity ruled by elected representatives, one cannot place much hope in the elected representatives: there is hardly a person among the political lot who is competent and honest to rule a country beset by such grave problems. This is obvious, but what is not so obvious is the fact that there is no hope that any such competent and honest person is able to emerge from the strangled political landscape. The recent unopposed “election” of Mr. Nawaz Sharif to continue to head his faction of the Muslim League notwithstanding, all political parties of Pakistan are dictatorships and family fiefdoms. Thus, it is not surprising that the nation has been given the good news of the entrance of Mr. Bilawal Bhutto in the political arena in September: imagine the state of this poor country when the father-president graces the palace without the hill and the son-prime minister sits down the road!

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Sharif and Chaudhry families have had their early starts in inducting the next generation into their fiefdoms, both failing miserably, because the sons have neither the cunning political temperament required to do the job, nor the existential necessity to enter an arena strewn with daily headaches of statements and counter-statements, corruption, fraud, and all the vile things one can think of. After all, they already have the multi-millions their fathers have amassed to live a comfortable life.

Jamat-e Islamic, the only “political party” which has some kind of transparent system for the emergence of leadership is so handicapped by the shortsightedness of its higher cadres that it has no chance at the polling stations: its political future is as doomed now as it was in 1954 when its founder abandoned the only path of success that was open to it. This leaves the regional players—especially, MQM and ANP—and the one-man party of Imran Khan. While MQM and ANP are secure in their local geographical areas, they can never assume national character given their present make up and both are, like all other political parties, dominated by one men at the top.

Imran Khan’s Tahrik-e Insaf is just that: Imran Khan’s one man party; a person who happen to become a national cricket hero at one time and who, later, used that fame for a good cause, but who has no political program, no broad based consultative process, no democratic process within his own party.

This barren political landscape is not merely the result of greed, corruption, and incompetence of Pakistani leadership; it is also the result of the psychological makeup of Pakistani nation: Pakistanis always think in terms of a person who will take them out of their present dismal state; the personal charisma is not only a major factor in their political behavior, it is the only factor. A leader is what they need, just one person on whom they can heap all their hopes and miseries. This may very well be the result of a strangled political past, but it certainly has something to do with the broader makeup of this nation.


For centuries, people who now comprise Pakistan have lived under feudal system. Throughout the Mughal era, the entire subcontinent remained a fiefdom of local lords; the British rule did little to change the basic demographic realities and though urban population did achieve a certain degree of political culture, a very large area of the current state remained—and remains—under the spell of local feudal lords. This factor alone has perpetuated untold suffering and poverty for a very large percentage of Pakistanis.

Historically entrenched facts are not changed at the polling booths. For Pakistan, this means a dangerous reliance on the cesspool of its current political leadership—for there is no one else on the scene who can enter power politics—and if one surveys the current political landscape of Pakistan, the only future one can imagine is the continuation of the present. And the present is unsustainable, if for nothing else, then due to the enormous population pressure which demands radical institutional reform. Yet, under the present circumstances, Pakistan’s future parliament and senate will not be much different from what they are now: two houses mostly populated by illiterate and incompetent men, many of whom have been charged for obtaining false educational degrees and none of whom has the ability to formulate even a single policy for a country where administration and politics have never been separated.

In this bleak scenario, all extrapolations of the present yield a downward spiral path into poverty, violence and disintegration. If there is any hope, it may very well be that in that very spiral; for things can go wrong only to a certain limit; once that limit has been reached, something new has to emerge. That something new, in the case of Pakistan, is not a new political order dreamt up in Washington DC for polities where even the basic ingredients of modern political state are absent, but something local. It could be a charismatic hero-type, who will emerge from the rubble and take hold of the nation in its death pangs and carve out a hitherto unforeseeable future for it.

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