There is a willing complicity of the Pakistani people in their misgovernance. They have allowed two political dynasties to dominate their politics.
As an American, I’m probably the last person who should offer an opinion on why Pakistan has often struggled to do more than “muddle through” over the years. First, because most Pakistanis already believe that Americans are far too eager to lecture them. And second, because my own country’s record on matters of governance leaves so much to be desired, and nowhere more obviously than in recent years.
Still, the question of why Pakistan’s actuality has fallen short of its aspirations must be asked, and indeed, many gifted analysts have done so. Historian Ayesha Jalal has singled out the country’s failure to develop a critical historical tradition as a key to the problem. Hassan Abbas (among others) has underscored Pakistan’s tolerance for terrorism and violent extremist ideologies, while Ziad Haider has focused on the absence of an Islamic narrative that can facilitate progressive change. A number of scholars, including Madiha Afzal and Nadia Naviwala, have contended that Pakistan’s failure to prioritize the education of its young people has set the stage for its broader failures. The distinguished economist Ishrat Husain has pointed to the erosion of the country’s professional civil service as a central factor behind its mediocre record.
Yet each of these arguments misses an important element of the story. They neglect the willing complicity of the Pakistani people in their misgovernment. They ignore the painful fact that the Pakistani electorate has regularly demonstrated that it places no particular value on competence or probity on the part of its leaders.
For nearly fifty years—two-thirds of Pakistan’s existence—two political dynasties have dominated the country’s civilian politics. Yes, the army has repeatedly intervened, turning out elected prime ministers and maneuvering, overtly and covertly, to support its preferred leaders. Yet, when the army did permit elections, every single one between 1977 and 2013—all seven of them—saw the triumph of one of two political families: the Bhutto/Zardari clan or the Sharifs.
Such remarkable stability might have been a godsend had these two families brought prosperity, order, and other manifestations of good governance. Alas, Pakistan was not so fortunate, as one government after another failed to deliver on its promises. The Sharifs and the Bhuttos rotated governments as if by divine right. And all the while Pakistan floundered.