Who’s who in Pakistan’s Politics?

With election fever gripping the nation this would be an appropriate time to asses Pakistan’s political system and the different players that make up the country’s political medium. Pakistan’s political system of parliamentary democracy is now seen as functioning simply because for the first in the countries history a government has completed its full term and will be transferring power over to a new government. Whilst many elements that make up Pakistan’s political system will partake in the upcoming elections, it is important to remember that Pakistan’s political system is more than just elections.

It should also be borne in mind that no matter who is elected to succeed on May 11 2013, Pakistan’s political system has never really changed. Pakistan’s current system is a continuation of the British Raj occupation that abolished Islamic rule in the Indian Subcontinent. Even though the Muslims shed their pure blood to establish Pakistan in the name of Islam, it was the British Parliament that created Pakistan’s initial legislation under its Indian Independence Act of 1947. Even though Pakistan produced its first constitution in 1956, this and every subsequent constitution, including the present 1973 constitution, has been framed around secular British law.

Foreign interference has been a virus that has infected every part of Pakistan’s political system – it was a system created by the departing British Empire only to be eventually dominated by the US. Elections, Presidents and Prime ministers are largely transitional and do not change the fundamental direction of a country. Pakistan’s political history has been dominated by the potential threat of India after partition, then the Soviet expansion into the region in the 1980’s and today, America’s continued attempts to dominate the region. Successive regimes in the country merely implemented different policies in line with these regional developments.

In summary and in no particular order, Pakistan political medium is composed of the following participants:

Military – Pakistan’s military is the most important institution of the country. It manages the countries security, foreign policy and the countries strategic assets. This power is the reason why it has ruled the country for over half of Pakistan’s history. During this period various leaders of the army took over the civilian apparatus which impacted not just the country’s political system but the country as a whole. The most dramatic of these was during the era of General Zia-ul-Haq when the Islamic sentiments within the army were used to support America’s proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.

When Pervez Musharraf became the Chief of Army staff (COAS) he was forced to contend such sentiments, but after the events of 9/11 General Musharraf was given an ultimatum to join America’s ‘war on terror’ and in line with America’s reversal of Islamifying the army, Musharraf began the process of clamping down on those who espoused Islam. Musharraf hounded the Islamic minded offices. He sought early retirement of some, he deployed others to far afield posts and a few were court martialled.

General Ashfaq Kayani continued with this agenda, he however removed army personnel from civilian roles, which was a legacy of the Musharraf era and aggressively pursued America’s war on terror into the tribal areas. Under Kayani’s leadership the countries strategic doctrine and posture was altered in January 2013, the India centric doctrine was revised and now defines internal threats as the greatest risk to the countries security. India is no longer seen as a threat to Pakistan’s security and America’s war on terror is the primary focus for the military.

Bhutto Family – As is common in the Indian subcontinent Pakistan’s political system has also been dominated by dynastic families who have ruled for long periods. The Bhutto family is the equivalent of the Kennedy family in the US and has always been a large landowning family from Sindh. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), established in 1967 and has ever since been dominated by the Bhutto Family who own over 10,000 acres of land in the Sindh province. Sindh today remains the support base for the Bhutto family.

Since its inception, the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP) was headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was the ruler of Pakistan from 1970 until a military coup removed him from power in 1977. His subsequent hanging in 1979 led to his daughter Benazir Bhutto, taking the leadership of the PPP. She took power twice in Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and then from 1993 to 1996. During both her terms in office Benazir proved she was an incompetent ruler and corruption was the centre piece of her governments. On both occasions her governments were dismissed, failing to even complete their terms. She went into exile from 1998 spending the next decade shuttling between Dubai and the UK working to reverse her flagging fortunes. When General Musharraf’s position began to weaken talks ensued in 2006 between US officials and British officials to bring Benazir back to power. Whatever the rhetoric at the time her return was a deal between the US and Britain that was highlighted in some detail by the Washington Post in December 2007: “For Benazir Bhutto, the decision to return to Pakistan was sealed during a telephone call from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the call culminated more than a year of secret diplomacy and came only when it became clear that the heir to Pakistan’s most powerful political dynasty was the only one who could bail out Washington’s key ally in the battle against terrorism.”

Asif Ali Zardari emerged as the ruler on a wave of optimism due to the death of Benazir Bhutto, Zardari had however been long groomed by the US. Prior to becoming President of Pakistan, Zardari was groomed by Zalmay Khalilzad (Former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN) to play a role in the post-Musharraf era. The New York Times reported their relationship in much detail in 2008: “Mr. Khalilzad had spoken by telephone with Mr. Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People’s Party, several times a week for the past month until he was confronted about the unauthorized contacts, a senior United States official said. A senior Pakistani official said that the relationship between Mr. Khalilzad and Mr. Zardari went back several years, and that the men developed a friendship while Mr. Zardari was spending time in New York with Ms. Bhutto. Mr. Khalilzad, being a political animal, understood the value of reaching out to Pakistan’s political leadership long before the bureaucrats at the State Department realised this would be useful at a future date,” the official said. The ambassador “did not make policy or change policy, he just became an alternate channel.” After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari manipulated Benazir’s will and assumed co-chairmanship of the PPP with his son Bilawal. In effect Zardari became the leader of the PPP. Zardari then scrupulously sidelined all those elements of the PPP that could potentially undermine his authority.

As the next general election inches closer the PPP has been badly discredited through numerous corruption scandals, sheer incompetence and nepotism. The plummeting popularity of Zardari has hurt the chances and ability of the PPP to mount an effective campaign for the general elections. This is why they rolled out Bilawal Bhutto to reconnect traditional PPP values with the disgruntled PPP voter base.

Nawaz Sharif – The Sharif family form the second dynastic family in Pakistan’s political system. Nawaz Sharif has been in power twice from 1990-93 and then 1997-99, until he was overthrown in a coup by General Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif himself is a business magnate from an industrial family that dominates Pakistan’s commercial landscape. As the owner of Ittefaq Group, a leading steel mill conglomerate, he is one of the country’s wealthiest industrialists. In 2005, Daily Pakistan reported that the Sharif family is the fourth wealthiest family in the country and second wealthiest political leader with an estimated net worth of $1.4 billion.

Like the Bhutto family when Nawaz Sharif has been in power his governments have been littered with scandal, corruption and incompetence. Nawaz Sharif on the two occasions he led the government he virtually bankrupted the nation.

Nawaz Sharif when he has been in power, he has served the American agenda for the region. He confirmed his pro-American position in a wikileaks cable where he stated to the then ambassador Anne Patterson “that he was ‘pro-American’. However publicly, he sometimes criticises US policies.” He then went on further in the leak that “he was grateful to the US for selecting’ General Kayani as the Pakistan Army chief. This explains the widely held belief among Pakistani politicians that US help is crucial in seeking top official jobs in Pakistan.”

Mohajir’s (Migrants) – Upon the partition of India in 1947 many Muslims found themselves on the Indian side of the border and thus migrated to what became Pakistan to the tune of 8 million Muslims. The Mohajir’s sacrificed much to come to the new nation created in the name of Islam. Their demands like all of the Muslim that migrated was to be recognised, provided with security, honour and employment. However successive governments failed them again and again. By the time the 1970’s came to an end the Mohajir’s gathered together on the basis of ethnicity as the system had failed them.

In 1978 a young student leader by the name of Altaf Hussain established the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation (APMSO) and campaigned for the right of Mohajirs at Karachi University. Then in 1984 the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM) was officially launched with the aim of securing rights for Mohajirs and recognition as the fifth nationality in Pakistan. The MQM message resonated amongst the Mohajirs of Sindh’s largest cities Karachi and Hyderabad. What launched them as the third political party in the country was the patronage provided by General Zia-ul-Haq. In order to halt the rise of the PPP through their Sindh support base the MQM would be funded and armed as a counterweight. By the time the 1990’s came around the MQM was at war with the government and the army was called in to maintain law and order on the streets of Karachi. This continued with both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif when they were in power.

Each community in Pakistan is aligned to certain political parties. The MQM was set up initially as a Mohajir party but now tries to portray itself as a party for all Pakistanis hence changing its name from Mohajir Qaumi Movement to Muttahida (united) Qaumi Movement. The Awami National Party (ANP) is a party the Pashtun community support. Each party is vying for control of Karachi and to attain its own interests, not much different from the other political parties in Pakistan. The Punjab province has historically dominated the other provinces whether in civil, political or military life. All of this is seen negatively by the other provinces as they have been largely ignored and has led them to make use of violence to protect their interests.

Mohajirs are considered to comprise around 21% of Karachi’s population. As Pakistan’s largest city with a population exceeding 20 million and Pakistan’s economic and trading hub, controlling the provincial assembly of Sindh will give any political party a significant say on the national level.

Clerics – In Pakistan corrupt clerics have hijacked Islam for their own political objectives. They have used the sincere emotions that the people have for Islam to gain political influence and have misled them and other sincere scholars along the way. These individuals who have attempted to project an image that they are the ones who are looking after the interests of Islam are in fact no different to the ‘secular’ politicians who inhabit the same political system. These clerics use Islam to get to power yet abandon it once they have gained their positions, choosing to participate in the failed secular system as every other politician.

Their biggest failure is the fact that they have never presented Islam as a system for governance for Pakistan and have focussed on individual aspects of Islam. Whilst there are sincere elements amongst the clerics they are drowned out by the opportunists amongst them which has strengthened corrupt politics in the country. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) which was coalition of Islamic parties that included the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami, formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2002 and lead the coalition government in Baluchistan. These provinces were the key staging grounds for America’s war in Afghanistan which spread to the tribal areas. Aside from some anti-US rhetoric, in terms of actions rather than solving Pakistan’s many problems through Islamic policies they are also part of the problem now.

Judiciary – The judiciary in Pakistan has historically been manipulated by successive governments, military dictators and outside powers. Whilst there are lists of decisions going back decades that raise numerous questions marks over the judiciary’s independence, the judiciary’s manipulation has been a consistent feature in Pakistan’s political landscape. This is fundamentally due to the lack of both political and ideological awareness amongst the judiciary who consistently cite constitutional articles to justify their positions. The laws in the country are concocted by the politicians and effectively executed by the judiciary. Whilst the recent history of the judiciary has been one of assertiveness and apparent independence, it is but the latest episode in their manipulation. As an example the Supreme Court in 2001 ruled in General Musharraf’s favour regarding his coup and the abolishment of the constitution, in its judgement, the Supreme Court said the military coup was a necessity and in the national interest! It recognised the pre-coup situation was one which could not have been solved by constitutional means.

General Musharraf’s constant abuse of power and attempts to hold elections under emergency powers led to a clash with the judiciary. Musharraf misjudged the judiciary’s response and the political opposition to the sacking of the chief justice and also did not anticipate mass movement in its aftermath. The lawyer’s movement was ceased upon by the PPP which gave it a political edge and once again the judiciary was manipulated by the political objectives of others.

Imran Khan – Former Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan is the only new face in Pakistan’s political system. Interestingly he has been involved in Pakistan’s politics since 1996, when he established Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). However in reality Imran Khan’s party is not really a political party as it does not have any strong roots in society or support base. For most of its short history it did not have any notable politician amongst its ranks and today is still a one man show. Since 1996, the PTI has only ever had one seat in the parliament, from 2002 – 2005, which was occupied by Imran Khan himself.

As a result of this Imran Khan he was forced to turn to established politicians who were dripping with corruption. He had to reach out to other politicians and asked them to join him to strengthen PTI, and thereby give the party a strong chance of performing well in the upcoming elections. Many notable politicians and technocrats from the Musharraf era, such as Khurshid Kasuri, who was central to America’s war on terror as well as infamous politicians from PPP and PML-N joined PTI. All of this had a detrimental effect on his message as many wondered how independent he was after allowing many politicians into his party that previously the PTI campaigned against. By the middle of 2012, a number of these politicians began to leave PTI as the party’s chances of gaining a large number of seats were fast evaporating. The march to Waziristan was a desperate attempt to reconnect with the masses.

Imran’s Khan’s rise, after almost two decades of struggling to make any mark on Pakistan’s political scene has another element to it. In early December 2011 the news international confirmed that at a PTI core committee meeting, the PTI’s Punjab president confirmed the existence of a secret committee functioning to probe the background of its new entrants which include a former ISI official, a retired major general and some Intelligence Bureau staff – i.e. the army. This would indicate the army is for the moment backing Imran Khan. US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, when asked by the BBC regarding the possibility of an anti-US government in Pakistan in case Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan get elected in 2013 elections, said that he has met both the leaders who have assured a pro-US government.

Pervez Musharraf – Musharraf dominated Pakistan’s political medium from his coup in 1998 until his demise in 2008. During this period he was effectively the most important man in the world as Pakistan’s was central to America’s flagging fortunes in the Afghan war. Musharraf has recently admitted he personally signed off on CIA drone strikes in the country. It is important to remember it was not Pervez Musharraf that became a constituent of Pakistan’s political medium but the role of the head of the army. At the last elections in 2008 Pervez Musharraf’s party the PML(Q) lost miserably, 22 of the federal ministers which constituted the bulk of Musharraf’s cabinet all lost their seats. Corruption, incompetence and sheer nepotism dominated the whole government. Musharraf’s attempts to constantly empower his role of Presidency, through constitutional changes and then a state of emergency lost him much credibility. The Lal masjid massacre and his arrogance in the face of the lawyer’s movement as well as the escalation of war in the northern areas all made him and him and his cronies deeply unpopular.

Musharraf is currently running in his personal capacity, as he is no longer the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and clearly without his uniform he has virtually no support. The New York Times reported: “Musharraf obviously overestimated his popularity. He was delusional in thinking he could ride out the storm, and he underestimated the resolve of the judges.There are certainly people in urban Pakistan who think that things were better during his tenure, but the majority do not find him a credible leader. He ruled on the strength of his uniform. Now that uniform is gone, and Pakistan has changed.”

USA – Whilst the USA is not part of Pakistan’s political medium it does have influence over its participants. America showered Pakistan with aid and arms during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and similarly has once again through military aid and economic aid beholden the nation’s political medium to its interests in the region. Through the US ambassador in Pakistan and the CIA presence in the country as well as the envoy to the region and the various US officials that constantly make trips to Pakistan the US has been able to gain influence over Pakistan and dominate its institutions and political medium. The US was able through its presence in Afghanistan to reorient the military in Pakistan to focus on the tribal areas instead of India. The US has even bypassed Pakistan’s troika set up i.e. the Presidency, Prime Minister and Chief of Army Staff and deal directly with those in charge of different institutions in Pakistan. The negotiations that were taking place in the UK to bring Benazir Bhutto back into the political medium clearly shows it is Washington rather than Islamabad that determines what happens in Pakistan.


It is accurate to state that Pakistan is not an independent nation, but rather a nation subordinate to a foreign power i.e. the US. The political system in Pakistan is dominated by dynastic families, feudal landlords and opportunist groups, individuals and politicians. Their sole aim is to get to power and enrich themselves irrespective of the consequences. When in power they legislate in a way to protect and maintain their own interests. Elections is the life support to this subordinate system and this is the reason why even a sincere individual will be unable to bring change through such a political medium dominated by the US on the one hand and then opportunists on the other hand.

The Clearest example of American dominance of Pakistan’s political medium is what took place with regards to Raymond Davies, the US defence contractor who murdered Pakistani citizens in broad daylight in Lahore in January 2011. The New York Times outlined in a detailed report the role different elements of Pakistan political medium played when the US was exposed of planting an army of secret agents to sow chaos and violence as part America’s war in Pakistan. The State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon all had separate channels to request visas for their personnel, and all of them led to the desk of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s pro-American ambassador in Washington. Haqqani had orders from Islamabad to be lenient in approving the visas. As street protests increased due to the possibility of the Pakistan Government cutting a deal over Raymond Davis with the US, the US ambassador in Pakistan approached both the ISI chief Ahmed Shuja pasha and General Kayani on getting Davis out of Pakistan. General Pasha ordered ISI operatives in Lahore to meet the families of the men killed and impose a settlement on them in the form of blood money. On March 16 2012, the court hearing for Raymond Davis took place and the NYT outlined what took place: “the judge ordered the courtroom cleared, and General Pasha’s secret plan unfolded. Through a side entrance, 18 relatives of the victims walked into the room, and the judge announced that the civil court had switched to a Shari’ah court. Each of the family members approached Davis, some of them with tears in their eyes or sobbing outright, and announced that he or she forgave him.” ISI operatives whisked Davis out of the courthouse through a back entrance and pushed him into a waiting car that sped to Lahore airport. The government of Pakistan colluded with the US through America’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, the ISI imposed America’s solution upon the families who lost their husbands, brothers and sons and the judiciary was influenced by the countries institutions and was manipulated once again. This is the political medium in Pakistan, established by the departing British, dominated today by the US and used by opportunists to enrich themselves. This system has broken the back of the people and what Pakistan needs now is a new politics.