After the fall of Nawaz Sharif; the game of dynastic politics continues in Pakistan

The modus operandi of hereditary political dynasties in Pakistan differ from India’s in their manner of control.

Published: 12th August 2017 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 13th August 2017 07:42 AM   |  A+A-

Even after Nawaz Sharif was felled by a judicial verdict on charges of corruption and nepotism last month, the family’s power remains pre-eminent in his party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). His move to install brother Shehbaz has been foiled, perhaps temporarily by a provision in the Constitution that requires brother Shehbaz to win a Parliamentary election first. “In Pakistan and India alike, the masses take any charges of corruption very seriously. The middle classes think the rulers plunder money since they have access to it,” says Dr Mohammad Waseem, Professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

If India has a dubious reputation for promoting dynastic politics, nearly half the 7,600-plus seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly, four provincial Assemblies and the Senate are controlled by dynasties. Of these power clans, 110 are in Sindh, 56 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 45 in Balochistan. Over and above, there are seven legislative dynasties in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Nepotism speaks its own statistics—44 per cent of legislators in the National and provincial Assemblies had relatives in previous Assemblies.

The military controls every aspect of Pakistan from politics to business, making power a cosy collusion between the two power centres

Though Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was forced to form a mammoth Cabinet comprising Nawaz’s allies, the dilemma that faces the Sharifs and their party is that Shehbaz will have to quit as Chief Minister of Punjab province. Whoever holds Punjab wields clout in Pakistan since half the population of the country is from there. Three hundred and seventy nine of the over 600 political families are from Punjab. To keep the PML-N’s voter base in Punjab intact, five members of powerful families that command huge vote banks in Punjab were sworn in as new members of the Abbasi Cabinet. Voters in Pakistan are influenced by these clans and not by ideology.

First Family Going Strong
The Bhuttos—the Gandhis of Pakistan—are the most well-known of its political families and have been in public life ever since Sheto Khan Bhutto migrated from Rajasthan to Sindh in the early 18th century. He had converted to Islam for the sake of tax benefits to Muslims under Aurangzeb’s rule. Over two centuries later, after the patriarch of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed by General Zia-ul-Haq on April 4, 1979, in Rawalpindi, his daughter Benazir Bhutto took over the party and became prime minister twice.

After her assassination in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007, control of the PPP has remained firmly in family hands. Benazir’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who speaks Urdu with a prep school accent, became PPP’s co-chairperson the same year. However, Benazir’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, who had become Pakistan’s President after her killing, decided it was time to launch his own dynasty. His sisters Azra Fazal Pechuho and Faryal Talpur and her husband Mir Munawar Ali Talpur are all legislators. Mir is under a cloud for corruption, being investigated by the National Accountability Bureau. In a poor country like Pakistan, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. Hereditary politics is one of the means to keep it intact. In 2014, Asif Ali was listed among the Top 10 richest men in his country with a net worth of $1.8 billion. His family fortune comes mainly from sugar mills.

The understanding between the families and the military, which controls every aspect of Pakistan from politics to business, makes power a cosy collusion between the two power centres in the country. This gives to vast corruption, as evidenced in the Panama Papers scandal, which brought down Nawaz. The speculation is that Shehbaz may stand for the Punjab Assembly seat vacated by Abdul Qadir Gilani, son of former PM Yousaf Raza Gillani, who belongs to one of the first families of Pakistan with an illustrious lineage: his great-great-grandfather Pir Makdum Walyat Shah was the  magistrate and provincial darbari of the Delhi Sultanate. His son Syed Sadar-ud-Din Shah Gilani was invited to the Delhi Durbar in Mughal India organised by the British. Third generation Gilani, Syed Ghulam Mustafa Shah, was a signatory of the Pakistan Resolution of 1940.


Changing Class Structure

Politics in Pakistan is an extension of the power structures that existed even before Independence. Tribal agricultural and feudal families dominate Parliament and Assemblies where members are ruled by clan, tribe, caste and biradari considerations. Former President Fazal Ilahi Chaudhry, former Prime Minister Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, ex-Governor of Gilgit-Baltistan Qamar Zaman Kaira, former Minister of Finance and General Secretary of PPP Punjab Tanveer Ashraf Kaira, and former Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board Chaudhry Zaka Ashraf are influential Gujjar overlords. Most of Pakistan’s political families are agricultural with zamindari backgrounds. The changing scenario has encouraged other clans from urban, sectarian and Army backgrounds to enter the Assembly. These can be divided into pre-Partition and post-Partition political families. For example, Gabol patriarch Allah Bakhsh Gabol was a member of the Bombay Legislative Assembly 1928, the Sindh Legislative Assembly in 1937, and Mayor of Karachi for two terms.

After 1947, a new power layer rose over the decade from industrialist and business families, which began to spread their effect over the economy. As the Bhuttos came under attack by General Zia-ul-Haq, a challenger rose in the form of the Sharifs with the military’s tacit support. As a departure from the traditional feudal farming elite, the mass base of the Sharifs is the urban merchants in Punjab who have first generation money and clout. It’s not just politics, which is the sphere of influence for these privileged clans—Justice Sir Mian Abdul Rashid from the Mian Family of Baghbanpura was the first Chief Justice of Pakistan and one of the country’s founding fathers. Mian Iftikharuddin, who was close to Jawaharlal Nehru and introduced Sheikh Abdullah to him in 1937, owned Pakistan Times and Daily Imroz. Begum Jahanara Shahnawaz was the first woman to preside over an Asian legislature.

General Power

The Pakistan Army remains the controlling influence, having made hereditary politics inclusive in its style of running the government by proxy. However limited his bargaining power may have been, Nawaz was one of the few PMs who could stand up to the Generals to an extent. His fall would give the Army more advantage in the country’s perilous democratic system. Even Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s son Muhammad Ijaz-ul-Haq is a member of the National Assembly and the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (Z). He was a minister in the Gen Pervez Musharraf government from 2004 to 2007, and in Nawaz’s government from 1990 to 1993. He has been an elected member of the National Assembly of Pakistan since 1990. Muhammed Akbar Khan, a Myer Minhas Rajput, was Pakistan’s first four-star General. His son Iftikhar Khan is Pakistan’s first designated Army chief. Many other Army brats are part of Pakistan’s power elite—industrialist Humayun Akhtar, son of Gen Akhtar Abdur Rehman Khan, owns Pepsi Pakistan; business baron Gohar Ayub Khan, son of late President Gen Ayub Khan, was a minister in Nawaz’s administration; computer scientist Dr Umar Saif is vice-chancellor of the Information Technology University and is a minister in the Punjab Province.

Most of Pakistan’s political dynasties have either colluded or were directly sustained by the Army. In 1999, when Nawaz was overthrown by Gen Musharraf, the dissident faction PML-Q led by feudal patriarch Shujaat Hussain promptly vocalised support for military rule. But there are no friends or enemies in politics: Hussain’s party is an important partner in the PPP-led coalition government.

Spreading Out to Rule
The modus operandi of hereditary political dynasties in Pakistan differ from India’s in their manner of control. While Indian leaders like the Gandhis, Yadavs, M Karunanidhi and K Chandrashekhar Rao expand their outfits, families in Pakistan hedge bets by distributing relatives across political parties like the Magsi family of Sindh and Balochistan. The family head is the powerful Zulfiqar Magsi, governor of Balochistan. There are 10 Magsis in the National Assembly, the Senate and the Balochistan and Sindh Assemblies, who comprise a progeny—brothers, sisters and wife. Mrs Magsi is a minister in the Balochistan government.

They contested on PPP and PML-Q tickets. In case of the Saifullahs, whose domain is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, family members are spread across parties. The powerful Salim Saifullah, who completed six years as a Senator, belongs to PML-Q. His younger brother Humayun Saifullah is a PML-Q legislator, while sibling Anwar won on a PPP ticket to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. Anwar’s son, Osman Saifullah followed his illustrious uncle’s route to the Senate, but as a PPP representative from Islamabad. Meanwhile, Salim’s nephew Jahangir Saifullah has joined Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. The families are also held together by marriage like in the feudal past; Anwar is married to the daughter of former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. 

God Isn’t Immune

If families of politicians and military control Pakistan, can religious leaders be far behind? Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, whose father Mufti Mahmud founded the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), heads the eponymous faction JUI-F. Anas Noorani is another religious figure who succeeded his father, Shah Ahmad Noorani, as head of Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan and the Jamaat-e-Islami. 
In the complex feudally controlled Pakistan society, where a handful controls a fair per cent of the country’s worth, democracy is a family business like none other. 

(with inputs from Naila Inayat in Pakistan)


1st Generation

Mian Muhammad Sharif, a Pakistani businessman and father of Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif. Shamim Akhtar, his wife and mother of Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif.

2nd Generation

  • Nawaz Sharif, thrice elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. Heads the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the largest political party in Pakistan.

  • His wife Kalsoom Nawaz Sharif comes from a Kashmiri background.

  • Shehbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of Punjab Province. Also held the same office from 1997 to 1999. He is the designated prime minister.           

  • Begum Nusrat Shehbaz, first wife of Shehbaz Sharif.

  • Aaliya Honey, his second wife.

  • Tehmina Durrani, his third wife.

  • Abbas Sharif, third brother of Nawaz Sharif and Shehbaz Sharif. Was elected member of the National Assembly of Pakistan in 1993. Died in 2013 when he slipped and fell on an electric heater in the lavatory.

  • Sabiha Abbas, wife of Abbas Sharif.

3rd Generation

  • Hussain Nawaz, son of Nawaz and Kalsoom, is a businessman. He was named in the Panama Papers and is under investigation. He is based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where his father lived during his time in exile.

  • Hassan Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz’s youngest son, is a Pakistani businessman, named in the Panama Papers and under investigation. Hassan has been doing business for the last 21 years in the United Kingdom. He is a director of four companies based in London.

  • Maryam Nawaz Sharif, seen as the political heir to her father Nawaz. She was appointed Chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme in 2013, but  resigned in 2014 after her appointment was challenged in the Lahore High Court. Named in the Panama Papers as the beneficial owner of properties in the UK owned jointly by her brothers. She is being investigated for forging documents submitted to the Supreme Court in relation to the case. If convicted, she could be disqualified from holding office.

  • Asma Nawaz Sharif, Nawaz’s daughter who married former finance minister Ishaq Dar’s son.

  • Rabia Imran, Shehbaz’s daughter.

  • Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, Shehbaz’s son. Member of the National Assembly.Salman Shehbaz Sharif, Shehbaz’s businessman son.


Maryam Nawaz 
Nawaz Sharif’s daughter was preparing to contest elections from Raiwand before the judicial axe fell on her father. Fluent in four languages, she has a doctorate from Cambridge and belongs to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

Hina Rabbani Khar
She won the elections from father Ghulam Noor Rabbani Khar’s parliamentary seat Muzaffargarh after a new law made it imperative for a candidate to hold a university degree disqualifying him from contesting. Hina was made the first woman foreign minister of Pakistan in July 2011.

Syeda Sughra Imam
The daughter of powerful politicians Syed Fakhar Imam and Syeda Abida Hussain is a Senator who has served as the minister of Social Welfare in Punjab. A Harvard graduate, she was a senator from Punjab and elected in 2002 as a Member of the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab.


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