In the three days I spent with Shahabudin Makhdoum, former minister and PPP president in south Punjab, I saw that old loyalties may still mean it is too soon to write off the Bhuttos’ party entirely. I also saw the deeper reasons for the PPP’s weakness, which go beyond the failures of the past five years. The simple fact is that change in Pakistan has made things harder for a party that has long drawn its leadership from the landowning aristocracy and tried to push back against conservative, politicised strands of Islam.
Makhdoum is standing in NA-164, a deeply rural constituency near Rahim Yar Khan, where his land lies. The 60-year old remembers campaigning in elections in the 1970s with his father, driving for hours in a jeep on dust roads. Politics here, as it still is in most rural areas, carries on much as it has done for decades. There are regular jalsas at which candidates pray, joke, are heckled, make promises and recount their past achievements. There are the myriad backroom meetings at which local individuals with influence — within a tribe, a school, a professional association, a biraderi of one type or another — are brought onside. There is the steady flow of patronage. Eventually, the whole is supposed to coalesce into an unstoppable avalanche of support.
“The south has changed much less than the north of the Punjab,” says political commentator Rumi. “In pockets, the youth has been mobilised (by the PTI), but by and large it remains feudal. The south is maringalised, poor and underdeveloped.”
But, even if the pace of change is slow, the voters have become demanding and the old habits of deference to the local landowners are falling away. Those candidates that do not strike a strongly anti-US tone, or are seen as insufficiently pious, will suffer, however much they have done for their constituents. There are more floating voters, more questions about why the PPP has failed to deliver.
“Democracy is a beautiful thing but it’s getting harder,” says Makhdoum after a meeting where thousands of farmers from the cornfields nearby packed a tent. “It is becoming such a dirty game.” Though confident of victory, Makhdoum says this election will be his last.
The final piece of the great puzzle of Pakistani politics is, of course, the army. This poll is already something of a milestone in Pakistani politics — the first at which, should all go well, a democratically elected civilian administration will have passed power after serving its full term to another democratically elected civilian administration. Most analysts agree that in the current circumstances, it is almost impossible to envisage a military coup.
Pakistan has changed radically since 1999. Back then, the key image of Musharraf’s coup was troops climbing over the gates into the State-run Pakistan Television (PTV) centre in Islamabad to seize the government-run channel. Now, no one watches PTV and there are not enough troops to take over all the satellite or cable broadcasters. Nor does the army have the prestige it did back then.
Instead, the generals appear happy to let the polls proceed unhindered and uninfluenced. Perhaps they calculate the hung Parliament most likely to be returned on 12 May is in their interests. Perhaps they have simply worked out that democracy is the best system to restore some measure of economic health to their country and thus safeguard most effectively the military’s own considerable economic interests. Perhaps they recognise that they simply do not have the legitimacy to take over again. Or maybe they are simply content with the very significant power and privileges they currently enjoy and have no wish to jeopardise either.
Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Kayani, stressed that the polls would go ahead despite the scores who have died. The Pakistani Taliban have pledged to halt the election through violence. Those campaigning, and to a lesser extent those who vote in Karachi, parts of Balochistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkwa, are brave men and women.
“I’ m going to vote because it is my right, and even if I don’t like the people I have to vote for, I want to exercise that right,” says Nadeem Ahmed, a tea seller in Lahore, who is planning on returning to his hometown near the Afghan frontier for the election. “When people tell you not to do something, it is always tempting to do it.”
Will Sharif form the government? In the Lahore headquarters, they appear quietly confident. But crunch the numbers any way you like and you’ll almost certainly end up with a coalition. And forming coalitions is something Sharif neither likes doing nor is good at. If the PTI won’t join him — and its leader told me explicitly that he would not join any coalitions — then the two main opposition parties will remain in opposition. This means instability and the possibility of fresh elections.
Jason Burke is the South Asia Correspondent of The Guardian and the author of The 9/11 Wars