The feudal ties that guarantee election remains a family affair
The Times of London
By Jeremy Page in Shah Jewna

Along the potholed roads of Shah Jewna, deep in the Punjab province of Pakistan, the camel carts laden with sugar cane jostle for position with cars and motorbikes plastered in political posters. New roads, new schools, new jobs, the campaign slogans cry.

But the soft-focus images of the candidates send another clear message: whoever wins parliamentary elections on Monday, politics here will remain a family affair. There are three main contestants in Shah Jewna – and they are all cousins.

Faisal Saleh Hayat, 52, is from the party that supports President Musharraf.  Abida Hussain, 61, represents the party that was led by Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in December. Raza Ali Bokhari, 38, is running for the party of Nawaz Sharif, a former Prime Minister.

All three, however, come from a dynasty that has owned most of the land around Shah Jewna for centuries, and has held formal political power since the British introduced elections in the 1920s. Mr Hayat, who has won three of the last six elections here (the others went to Mrs Hussain), is even revered as a “pir” or saint. Their rivalry is real enough – he has not spoken to her in 20 years.

But their common feudal background and lack of a coherent political platform help to explain why Pakistan has failed to become a functional democratic state. “I’m fed up with being politically correct,” Mrs Hussain, the Pakistan People’s Party candidate, told The Times. “I’m happy to be a mediaeval, feudal … whatever you want.” She was being sarcastic, but Mrs Hussain is one example of the wealthy, Western-educated Pakistani politicians whose careers depend more on personality and patronage than on parties and policies.

Schooled in Switzerland and Italy, she started out with the PPP and was Ambassador to Washington from 1991 to 1993. In 1997 she was elected after switching to Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. In the last elections in 2002, she jumped to PML (Q), a splinter faction that allied with General Musharraf.  

Now she is back with the PPP and claims to be leading by 40,000 votes.  It’s because of Benazir Bhutto – everyone is rooting for her,” she said. Like her, the PPP is hoping to win on a wave of sympathy for Ms Bhutto, whose widower, Asif Ali Zardari, is leading the party.

A survey by the US-funded International Republican Institute forecast this week that the PPP would win half the vote. The result, analysts say, will epend on how badly the election is rigged. The question, though, is whether any of Pakistan’s political parties can tackle its corruption, inflation and Islamist insurgency.

“They don’t have the capacity. They don’t have think-tanks or consultative forums. They just believe in winning power and money and distributing it among their supporters,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a leading political scientist. He estimates that politics is dominated by 50-60 families, which control 70-80 per cent of parliament.

Among them is Mr Hayat, Shah Jewna’s incumbent. Educated in London, he began with the PPP and was elected in 2002, but switched to the PML (Q) and became Interior Minister. “In this part of the world, parties are at best marginal,” he said. “It’s the individual that counts. Our family has had centuries of influence. We have a core group of loyalty. Abida has her group. I have mine.” And so it goes on, from one generation to the next.


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