On Pakistan’s Election Trail, the Old Feudal Elites Struggle for Votes

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

A Pakistani in a Christian slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 5, 2013.

Yousaf Raza Gilani throws himself behind the wheel of his white SUV and sets off into the countryside outside Multan, an ancient city in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Gilani, 60, used to be the prime minister, but he was booted from office last year by the country’s Supreme Court for refusing to reopen old corruption charges against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani has been disqualified for running for public office for five years, but, in the May 11 general elections, he is trying to have his three sons and a brother win parliamentary seats in Multan.

When Pakistan goes to the polls this month, it will be the first time a democratically elected government will have completed its full five-year term to be replaced by another democratically elected government. The chief players are the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), to which Gilani belongs, former cricket legend Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party, and the frontrunner, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League—Nawaz. Against the backdrop of a violent campaign—the Taliban are mounting bomb attacks on politicians and their offices—candidates are desperately casting around for votes.

(MORE: Pakistan’s Election Season: When Courting Voters Means Courting Death)

That includes Gilani, even if he’s not doing it for himself. “People are surprised by how little security I have,” Gilani says, turning a corner on to the main road. As prime minister, Gilani had a thundering escort of blacked-out vehicles speeding through emptied roads. Now there are only two police cars with him. “We’re just like commoners,” says Gilani, a little fancifully, waving to passersby, who offer startled smiles as their former PM negotiates the disorderly traffic himself.

Gilani is one of the political giants of Multan, which, as vast billboards announce, is known as the city of saints. The landscape is dotted by centuries-old, beautifully carved shrines consecrated to some of South Asia’s most prominent Sufi saints. The two leading political families of the area —­ the Gilanis and the Qureshis ­ — are rival makhdooms, custodians of the local shrines, as well as large landowners. In the past, their religious clout and agricultural wealth were key to winning votes, especially in the countryside. But as Pakistan has increasingly urbanized, the political hold of so-called feudals has loosened, making them vulnerable to the increasingly assertive demands of voters.

Driving through Multan, Gilani eagerly points out the improvements he has made. “You probably don’t recognize Multan,” he says, pointing to the bridges and roads he had built. As he arrives at a campaign rally, a group of supporters from the PPP burst into cheers. Some are children who are too young to vote. They hurl fistfuls of rose petals at Gilani and chant his name. Costumed drummers rouse the party faithful with fast-paced rhythms.

In urban parts of Pakistan, Gilani has been criticized for defying the judiciary and channeling money to his constituency. At home in Multan, he’s hailed for disbursing patronage. “To us, he’s still Prime Minister,” booms a local party hack. The crowd exults, waving party flags to loud drumming. “The Gilanis have done lots of work in the area,” says Sher Muhammad Abid, an accountant, referring to recently developed infrastructure projects in the city. He shrugs at widespread allegations of venality. “Which politician doesn’t have cases against them?” Two of Gilani’s sons fighting elections have faced corruption charges that they deny.

Other supporters offer more opaque reasons. “We’ve been voting for the PPP for several decades,” says Muhammad Shahid, an electrician. Why? “I don’t know, ask our elders. They’re the ones who made the decision.” Where are the elders? “They’re all dead.” Gilani is keen to tap that sense of party loyalty. “I fought every election since 1988 as the PPP’s candidate,” he says in his speech. “If people aren’t loyal to their party, how can they be loyal to you, the people?”

(MORE: Pakistan’s Election Season Begins With Two Very Different Candidates)

The barely veiled reference is to Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister in Gilani’s cabinet who left the PPP to join Imran Khan’s party. The quarrel between the Qureshis and the Gilanis of Multan predates elections in the subcontinent. When they were both in the same party, Gilani and Qureshi tolerated each other. Now, they’re at war. Gilani’s son Musa is taking on Qureshi in one of Multan’s rural seats.

For Qureshi, the party he represents isn’t that important. “Here, it’s about personality politics,” says Zain Qureshi, his son and heir. At a campaign venue on the edge of the city, surrounded by fields of wheat, pledges of support are renewed. “We’ve been with your grandfather and your father,” a wizened farmer with a wispy white beard and red scarf tells Zain. “If Shah Mahmood goes to Imran Khan’s party, we’re fine. Even if he goes to the [Indian National] Congress, he’s acceptable to us.”

Every vote is being assiduously courted. After his rally, Gilani plunges his SUV through narrow and dark winding roads near his village to an erstwhile supporter’s home. “We’re going now to go and placate someone,” he says. The man’s complaint? “He doesn’t like my face,” quips Gilani. “But watch this.” Arriving at the house, Gilani addresses a small crowd slouched on rope beds in the courtyard. When he finishes, the men rise to declare their backing for Musa, Gilani’s son. “I wasn’t angry,” says a visibly gratified Sardar Khan, a local political boss who owns the home. “He just hasn’t been here in five years.”

Voters’ demands are usually for roads, sewage systems and gas supplies. “Urban politics is different,” says Zain Qureshi. “In the cities, everyone already has these things.” Equally important are appearances at weddings and funerals. These days, political rivals routinely bump into each other in graveyards across Multan. “If even a donkey dies today,” says Qasim, another of Gilani’s sons, “every candidate will send someone to offer condolences.”

The status of the Gilanis and Qureshis as makhdooms helps them politically. When men approach Gilani, they stoop and half-genuflect. Gilani catches their hands before they can touch his knee. One woman arrives at the Qureshi home, her eyes streaming with tears. Zain raises his cupped hands and offers a prayer. “The turban carries a lot of weight,” says a Qureshi supporter, referring to the headgear that custodians of shrines inherit and wear. The two families also compete over their rival status. “Shah Mahmood isn’t a syed,” Gilani notes, almost derisively, at one point, adding that unlike his rival, he’s a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.

Still, the pedigrees possessed by the Gilanis and Qureshis don’t guarantee them automatic victory. Both have lost elections to smaller players in the past. Even in their native Multan, members of the middle classes have, over time, acquired the wealth and clout to challenge the two families. Gilani acknowledges the trend: “What matters is your own performance, what you do for the area, the party you represent, and your alliances with other clans. Being from a spiritual family helps, but only a little. You have to earn every vote.” As Pakistan’s young democracy strengthens, its old dynasts are forced to find new ways to cleave to a fading past.

MORE: Musharraf Flees a Court — and Puts Pakistan’s Generals in a Quandary

6 comments
NoorAlam
NoorAlam

ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Arif Nizami on Friday said that the caretaker government was determined to hold the elections in a free, fair and transparent manner and asked the voters to come out of their homes on the polling day and exercise their right to vote as survival of the country was linked with the ballot.

He said that apprehensions about a delay in the elections were over and the nation was poised to exercise its right of vote on May 11 with enthusiasm.

Speaking on the occasion of inauguration of the Post Election Complaint Cell at the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) headquarters here on Friday, the minister said that due to the Nadra biometrics, the possibilities of casting bogus votes had been eliminated and arrangements were in place to catch all those trying to do that. He said the SMS service launched to get information about the vote numbers and location of polling stations had evoked a huge response, which showed the level of interest shown by the people for elections.

Nizami said Pakistan was achieved through ballot and this democratic right was the guarantee for the survival of the country. He said that the caretaker government had taken all steps to hold the general elections in a free, fair and transparent manner.

While addressing the media on the occasion of the opening of PID Media Cell for General Elections 2013, Nizami hoped that the country would see a major surge in the voters turnout on May 11. He said that elections were part of the battle for the survival of the country.

He said that it was an achievement of the caretaker government that the stage was set for, free and fair elections, as the terrorists’ plan to sabotage the same had been thwarted effectively. The government would, he said, hand over the affairs of the country to the elected government as per the Constitution and would not hang on to power even for a single day.

To another question, Nizami said that though the law and order was a provincial subject, the federal government had created harmony among all the stakeholders.

Referring to the kidnapping of the son of former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, the minister said that the prime minister had contacted Gilani and it was a good sign that despite the incident, the PPP had not talked about boycotting the elections.

Meanwhile, Caretaker Interior Minister Malik Habib Khan promised to provide security to the voters on the polling day. All rumours about a delay in elections have proved wrong and the people should participate in the election process without any fear, he said while talking to the state-run TV.

He said the government had worked with the collaboration of all the stakeholders for holding free, fair and impartial elections across the country.He said that the security plan had been finalised and all law enforcement agencies were fully prepared for meeting any untoward incident on the polling day.

To a question, Malik Habib said that he had worked to maintain the law and order situation across the country on the basis of his 40 years experience.“Maintaining the law and order situation in Balochistan is a great achievement of the caretaker government”, he added. To another query, he said that participation of all the nationalist political parties of Balochistan in the general elections was a positive sign for the flourishing democracy in the country.

 

NoorAlam
NoorAlam

Today we are told, that the present caretaker government and the army, wants a safe and dignified exit for the former military dictator. They should have thought about this, before he landed in the country.

Gen Musharraf did not allow a dignified exit to the former Prime Minister who was overthrown by him and his allies. If he was allowed such an exit, then it will open the door, once again, for such military adventurism. The unfortunate thing is, that he is not repentant. He still insists, that his actions were lawful.

If I remember correctly, the emergency in the country was not proclaimed by him as the president of a country, but as the army chief. He is now trying to hide behind, the so-called advice tendered to him by his co-conspirator, the then Prime Minister. He did not act on the advice of the then PM and allowed the army chief to do his deed. As I see it, the advice, if at all given, was for the ears of the president and coo no one else. He abrogated the Constitution and had the Chief Justice confined in his residence.

I do not think, he was responsible for the assassination. On that point, I believe Rahman Malik has much more explaining to do, because he had some responsibility for the safety of his party leader. But he along with Babar Awan ran away to Islamabad. Everyone in the party has been trying to protect these two.

One would also like to know from the horse's mouth how the infamous NRO came into being who were the players behind the scene,filthy Shia kenjer Mushrif was the responsible for kenjer drones on the soil of Pakistan

NoorAlam
NoorAlam

I have no sympathy for Musharraf who is a traitor and like Zia tried his utmost to make Pakistan a wahabi playing ground. But this corrupt judiciary whose chief justice son goes around doing multi-billion rupee corruption is no better. When whole communities are wiped out by wahabi terrorists, this judiciary keeps protecting those wahabi leaders, releasing them from the prisons.

Make no mistake, these are all sell outs. This feud is their "internal" problem. Wolves fighting with each other for their control over sheep herd and the meat. It is nothing more. Ultimately the sheep can expect a "Saudi-Wahabi" deal will be reached between the wolves and commission for the deal will be paid by innocent Shia/Sufi/Brelvi lives.

NoorAlam
NoorAlam

If people in Pakistan cannot stop this judiciary which is running amok and stop the CJP who should be called CJT (chief judicial terrorist) who is always foaming at the mouth then some one else should. I approve of American involvement because the people gunning for Musharraf are pro Taliban terrorists . The judges sitting on the Superior Court benches are not judges but revenge seeking pygmies who have no business to be judges . Imagine most of these judges including the CJT supported the take over by Musharraf and gave him a mandate to amend the constitution. These guys took oath under the PCO and now they are trying to condemn Musharraf . If Musharraf is guilty then these guys are doubly guilty of Treason and should be hanged before anything happens to Musharraf.