BADAR RANJHA, Pakistan — In an interview last month, President Pervez Musharraf challenged Western journalists to journey to rural Pakistan to gauge public opinion. The mood of voters could be best gauged in the villages of Punjab, he said, the densely populated eastern province that holds 55 percent of the country’s population.
“The people who vote are these people on the streets in the villages,” Mr. Musharraf said. “Please go around and ask them, what do they think?”
The Pakistani leader said Westerners overestimate the popularity of his political opponents, particularly former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, because they only meet “human rights activists” in Pakistan’s cities. And he scoffed at Mrs. Bhutto’s claim that her party would trounce Mr. Musharraf’s in a free and fair election.
“Don’t let anyone misguide you, form your own opinions, go to the streets and find out,” Mr. Musharraf said. “Find the common man and ask him or her.”
In random interviews in this village in northern Punjab last month, 10 of 15 villagers criticized Mr. Musharraf’s government for high inflation and failing to help the poor. They said his government, like those before it, had supported the feudal landlords who dominate rural Pakistan, where 5 percent of the population controls 66 percent of the land, one of the most inequitable ownership rates in South Asia.
“Until the time feudalism ends in our country, the situation cannot get any better,” said Azmat Ali Bhatti, a store owner in this destitute farming village of 2,000 families in northern Punjab. “Because of the feudal system, the woes and the problems of the poor go ahead.”
Complaints from Punjabis about high inflation, which was roughly 10 percent last year, could represent a political threat to Mr. Musharraf’s party in parliamentary elections scheduled for Jan. 8, according to a poll released Thursday by the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit group based in Washington that is affiliated with the Republican Party.
Fifty-three percent of Pakistanis surveyed identified inflation as the issue that would determine which party they supported; 15 percent cited unemployment and 9 percent poverty. Terrorism ranked as the fourth most-important reason, cited by 6 percent.
In the two weeks after Mr. Musharraf declared a state of emergency on Nov. 3, the price of wheat rose by 25 percent, to $10 for 88 pounds, from $7.50, villagers said. Rice rose by 25 percent as well. Mustard oil prices rose by 75 percent, to $1.05 a pound from 60 cents. Even before the emergency, they said, prices had been rising over the last several years.
“Here, a poor person earns 100 rupees a day,” said Shahed Imran, a 22-year-old tea stall owner, referring to an amount roughly equivalent to $1.65. “How can he support his family?”
Since then, the prices of wheat and 53 other “essential household items” have continued to rise, according to government statistics released last Saturday. The price of liquefied petroleum gas, used by the rural poor for heating and cooking, reached a record level in early December, according to Pakistani news reports.
Punjab, which holds 54 percent of the seats in Parliament, is where next month’s election will be won or lost, according to Pakistani political analysts. Mr. Musharraf’s most dangerous rival there, they say, is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both men’s base of support is center-right voters in Punjab, and the recent poll showed that Mr. Sharif is pulling those voters away from Mr. Musharraf.
Mr. Sharif, who was accused of corruption during his two terms as prime minister in the 1990s, was ousted by Mr. Musharraf in a bloodless coup in 1999. The wealthy industrialist returned from exile in Saudi Arabia on November 26th, and has attracted large crowds at political rallies in Punjab.
Pakistani political analysts said that while urban voters generally cast their ballots for the party they support, the election in rural Punjab is likely to be decided by which party wins the loyalty of local landlords. Feudal landlords in Pakistan often pressure their illiterate tenants to vote, en masse, for the candidate of the landowner’s choice.
Winning over the landlords is a process that often involves doling out cash, government jobs and other perks, providing an advantage to Mr. Musharraf, the incumbent. Widespread suspicion exists that Mr. Musharraf will try to fix the elections.
But Mr. Sharif has deep pockets, a pre-existing relationship with some landlords and anti-incumbent sentiment — it seems — on his side. Anger over inflation could also aid him.
In the interviews, villagers repeatedly said that Mr. Musharraf’s economic policies, like those of past governments, had not aided the rural poor.
“The routine is the same,” said one man, who asked not to be named. “The government does not make a difference.”
Pakistani and international economists generally agree. Pakistan’s economy has boomed under Mr. Musharraf, they said, with roughly 6 percent growth per year on average. But nearly all of the growth has come in the urban service sector in areas such as banking, construction and stock trading.
Farming, in particular, has remained stagnant, they said. While the urban middle class has grown, landless farmers have been left behind.
Villagers said some aspects of the rural economy have improved under Mr. Musharraf. Dozens of families here have televisions compared to a handful years ago. New Chinese-made motorbikes sped down the village’s rutted, one-lane road. And new generators and concrete lining have been added to the local irrigation system.
But villagers said the improvements aided wealthy land owners. The 50 percent of village residents who are landless continue to struggle.
Expressing pessimism about the possibility of real change in rural Pakistan, many villagers displayed little interest in politics. They said a former member of Parliament from the area had been a member of Mrs. Bhutto’s party in the 1980s. But they did not know who represented them now.
Most villagers reported having only a grade-school education. They said people generally vote for whomever their landlords tell them to support, and they expressed a deep cynicism about all Pakistani leaders.
“God knows who will be the leader after Musharraf,” said Tariq Hussain, a shop owner. “Whoever becomes leader is worse than their predecessor.”
Villagers expressed disappointment with Mr. Musharraf, who raised hopes when he seized power eight years ago promising sweeping reform. The former general proved no different than the country’s other leaders, they said, who failed Pakistan’s landless masses.
“Musharraf has announced he will end poverty,” said Mr. Hussain, the shopkeeper. “It seems he will end the poor.”
David Rohde and Salman Masood reported from Badar Ranjha on Nov. 18 and added updated information from Islamabad.Top