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.

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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?”

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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.

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