Dynasties and Democracy

This week, the Pakistan People's Party named Benazir Bhutto's son, Bilawal, as chairperson of the party, even though he is only 19, still in college, and will not be leaving school to become a full-time politico just yet. His father Asif Ali Zardari and two others will serve as regents in the interim. Certainly, young Bilawal has to be one of the world's first major political leaders to have an active Facebook page at the time he entered politics. It's hard not to understand and agree with Tariq Ali's response to the news:

The Pakistan People's Party is being treated as a family heirloom, a property to be disposed of at the will of its leader.

Nothing more, nothing less. Poor Pakistan. Poor People's Party supporters. Both deserve better than this disgusting, medieval charade.

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That most of the PPP inner circle consists of spineless timeservers leading frustrated and melancholy lives is no excuse. All this could be transformed if inner-party democracy was implemented. There is a tiny layer of incorruptible and principled politicians inside the party, but they have been sidelined. [link]

In the immediate aftermath of losing the charismatic Benazir as its leader -- and on the eve of a national election -- I suppose it's not altogether surprising that the PPP's leadership would readily defer to the wishes expressed in her will by turning to a familiar name to serve at least as the symbolic leader of the party. (I'm not so sure he's a familiar face to most Pakistanis, especially since he's spent much of his short life abroad and out of the public eye. Indeed, as you can see from the photo above, his "Facebook" profile doesn't even have a "face.") And we don't need to single out Pakistan -- dynastic politics of one form or another are a way of life to varying extents in many countries, including such celebrated democracies as India and the United States. (One observer has even described dynastic politics as an "American tradition.")

Still, as Ali also noted last week, "[t]o be dependent on a person or a family may be necessary at certain times, but it is a structural weakness, not a strength for a political organisation." I suspect that it will take stronger and more durable electoral processes outside of the political parties, in Pakistan more generally, in order to catalyze greater internal democracy within the political parties. Would that be enough? Perhaps not. Indira Gandhi and her spawn retained a dominant role within the Congress Party even after being voted out of power in 1977, and of course the 2008 election here in the United States could end up replicating the "Benazir-Nawaz-Benazir-Nawaz" pattern of 1990s Pakistan with a crudely analogous (and longer-lasting) "Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton" pattern of our own. (Grover Norquist thinks we need a constitutional amendment to put a stop to all of this.)

But the importance of meaningful electoral processes cannot be dismissed altogether, since they do create spaces where other political leaders can emerge. Free and fair elections also would give the public as a whole something they did not really have in Pakistan even during the 1990s: an opportunity to hold parties accountable for their internal decision-making by voting their leadership out of political office, no matter what families those leaders come from. After all, contrary to speculation from as recently as the summer of 2006, we are not going to see Jeb Bush's name on the primary ballots this spring, and were he a candidate, I can't imagine that he would have carried the Bush dynasty to a resounding victory.

Posted by Anil Kalhan