Dynastic Politics: A Paradoxical Enabler Of Inclusion?

While political dynasties may facilitate the entry of women into politics, they also wield significant influence over their advancement within the political hierarchy.

Dynastic Politics: A Paradoxical Enabler Of Inclusion?

Political dynasties have been a long-standing ubiquitous phenomenon in democracies around the world. Scholars have raised concerns that inequality in the distribution of political power may reflect imperfections in democratic representation. As Mosca argued that "every class displays the tendency to become hereditary, in fact if not in law". Recent kinship examples include George W. Bush and Hilary Clinton in United States, Justin Trudeau in Canada, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in India and South Korean President Park Geun Hye. 

Many countries have conscientiously banned political dynasties. For example, The 1987 Constitution of the Philippines, under Article II, Section 26, prohibits political dynasties. Article 48 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia places restrictions on the participation of family members in political office.

More recently, the constitution of Nepal in 2015 adopted provisions aimed at preventing political dynasties through provisions on proportional representation and nomination of candidates. 

Similarly, South Korea has enacted regulations to curb excessive political power within families, like restricting concurrent service of immediate family members in office.

In Pakistan, influential families hold considerable sway, seemingly commanding entire political parties. This dynamic resembles patron-client networks, facilitating the functioning of democratic institutions and practices—such as political parties, electoral processes, party networks, and mobilization—as integral components of social power.

For generations, the Chaudharys, Sharifs, Bhuttos, Bugtis, Bilous, Hotis and others have monopolised elected offices at all levels of government, perpetuating a system that frustrates and disheartens many Pakistanis.

The 2024 general elections in Pakistan further epitomise the entrenched influence of political dynasties, as evidenced by the prominent participation of families such as the Qureshis (Shah Mehmood, Mehrbano and Zain), Sharifs (Nawaz, Shahbaz, Humza, and Maryam), Gillanis (Yousaf Raza and all his sons), the Bhuttos (Asif Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Faryal Talpur), and the Chaudharys (Salik, Shafey, Parvez Elahi and Qaisra Elahi). 

With each election cycle, there is a growing consensus among the populace that this cycle of dynastic dominance must come to an end. One significant consequence of this sentiment was the emergence of a revenge vote cast by the public in favour of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). The PTI capitalised on the widespread opposition to dynastic politics by presenting itself as a vehicle for change, promising to introduce fresh faces and break the stranglehold of established political families.

The prevalence of dynastic politics has perpetuated an elite class that spans generations, obstructing the entry of capable and meritorious candidates into politics. This trend poses significant challenges to democracy, as dynastic politicians benefit from inherited political capital, including name recognition, financial resources, and established political networks. In contrast, non-dynastic candidates lack such advantages, resulting in an electoral imbalance that favours dynasts.

This inequality in access to power resembles a systemic barrier, impeding healthy electoral competition and discouraging new entrants from participating in political activities. Moreover, the concentration of power within a particular class, often associated with state offices and control over resources, fosters an environment conducive to corruption. The lack of accountability for office bearers further exacerbates this issue, as dynastic ties prioritise loyalty over merit within political parties.

Ultimately, the perpetuation of dynastic politics undermines the principles of democracy by perpetuating elitism, hindering fair competition and fostering corruption. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort to promote meritocracy, increase transparency and accountability, and create pathways for broader civic participation beyond entrenched familial networks. 

However, this election year has heralded a new era in Pakistani politics, particularly in the realm of dynastic power struggles. Maryam Nawaz Sharif was sworn as the first woman chief minister in Pakistan. Maryam Nawaz's historic election as the first woman Chief Minister in Pakistan has prompted celebrations among many, seen as a breakthrough for gender equality in a traditionally male-dominated sphere.

Yet, there remains a lingering question about whether her achievement would have been possible without the influential surname she carries. The ongoing debate centers on whether her election marks a victory over patriarchal norms or if it merely reinforces dynastic privileges.

On one hand, supporters argue that her ascent to power challenges entrenched patriarchal barriers and signifies progress towards gender equality in Pakistani politics. They view her election as a significant milestone in breaking the glass ceiling and opening doors for more women to pursue leadership roles.

On the other hand, critics contend that her political success is primarily attributable to her family connections rather than her individual merit or the defeat of patriarchal norms. They argue that dynastic privileges played a central role in her election, overshadowing any genuine advancements in gender equality.

As Kanchan Chandra, has aptly stated in her book Democratic Dynasties, there is a paradoxical role of dynastic politics in empowering socially marginalised groups such as women. In Pakistan’s political landscape, where patriarchal norms are deeply ingrained, women's political participation often operates within a quota system, with reserved seats serving as a mechanism for inclusion.

However, these reserved seats are typically subject to the control of dynastic party leaders, whose decisions are influenced by personal relationships rather than merit alone. Thus, while political dynasties may facilitate the entry of women into politics, they also wield significant influence over their advancement within the political hierarchy.

Similarly, the election of Maryam Nawaz as the first woman Chief Minister of Punjab exemplifies the complex interplay between gender dynamics and political power structures in Pakistan. While her achievement challenges traditional gender roles and signifies progress towards gender equality, it is also important to acknowledge the role of dynastic politics in facilitating her rise to power. To fully understand the significance of her election, it is essential to consider both factors and their implications for broader societal dynamics in Pakistan.

While dynastic politics may paradoxically facilitate some inclusion, it inherently obstructs a truly inclusive political landscape. This obstruction significantly contributes to political instability, economic downturns, and societal well-being challenges. Hence, Pakistan urgently needs a comprehensive approach involving legal reforms, electoral and institutional strengthening, to effectively regulate political dynasties. This strategy entails enacting legislation and potentially amending the constitution to explicitly address political dynasties.

Additionally, empowering the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to rigorously enforce electoral laws is imperative. Promoting internal democracy within political parties and fostering an environment conducive to open discourse and informed citizenship are equally essential steps. By implementing these measures, Pakistan can advance towards a more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democratic system, thus mitigating the negative impacts of political dynasties on governance and representation.

The writer is a lawyer. She tweets @laibaaqayyum