Dynasties, Not Democracy, May Decide Pakistan’s Vote

This NYT piece by Yaroslav Trofimov points out the web of relationships shared by Pakistan’s political elites and their mock contests. Electoral democracy remains, what one of the contender states, “all in the family here” ….

“SHAH JEWNA, Pakistan — If next month’s parliamentary elections fail to bring sweeping changes to Pakistan, the contest for this constituency deep in the country’s heartland may help explain why.

The incumbent lawmaker, Faisal Saleh Hayat, 52 years old, won three of the past six parliamentary races here. His challenger, Abida Hussain, 61, won the other three. Raza Ali Bokhari, 38, is campaigning for the first time, as a self-described “candidate of change.”

All three are cousins.”

In Rural Areas, Running
Often Runs in the Family;
Three Cousins Face Off
January 28, 2008; Page A1

SHAH JEWNA, Pakistan — If next month’s parliamentary elections fail to bring sweeping changes to Pakistan, the contest for this constituency deep in the country’s heartland may help explain why.

The incumbent lawmaker, Faisal Saleh Hayat, 52 years old, won three of the past six parliamentary races here. His challenger, Abida Hussain, 61, won the other three. Raza Ali Bokhari, 38, is campaigning for the first time, as a self-described “candidate of change.”

All three are cousins.

Yaroslav Trofimov
Rival posters of Abida Hussain (left) and Faisal Hayat (right) on the main street of Shah Jewna.

For this trio, party loyalties are transient but family is eternal. The three are all members of Shah Jewna’s feudal dynasty, a landholding family that has governed this region for generations, carrying the local vote since British colonial officers introduced elections in the 1920s.

One of the cousins is currently allied with President Pervez Musharraf. The two others profess their opposition to the former military dictator. Otherwise, the three feuding relatives invoke no particular platform or ideology — Ms. Hussain, for example, represented each of her two rivals’ parties in the previous two elections. Instead, they seek support by virtue of their pedigree and ability to dispense patronage.

“My biggest asset is the name of my father, and the name of my grandfather,” said Mr. Bokhari, a former marketing executive. “People here hold respect for the family, and they want someone from within the family to represent them.”

[Faisal Saleh Hayat]

This constituency of 375,000 voters is a microcosm of electoral battles raging throughout rural Pakistan ahead of a national vote scheduled for Feb. 18. In this milestone election, the party that wins a majority in Parliament will share power with Mr. Musharraf. Together, they will rule a key U.S. ally, a nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people beset by an escalating Islamist insurgency that threatens the region and beyond.

Viewed from afar, the election appears to be a pitched confrontation between believers in civilian democracy and the cronies of Mr. Musharraf, who last fall dismissed the country’s Supreme Court, shut down independent TV networks and briefly proclaimed a state of emergency. Mr. Musharraf spent the last week in Europe, meeting with Western leaders to assure them that he was committed to change through democracy.

But these national political issues are often muted in Pakistan’s countryside, home to more than 70% of its population. Here, powerful local landlords tend to win election after election, regardless of their changing party affiliations.

“Rural politics and urban politics are completely different: The rural population has been depoliticized, and votes for the individuals,” said Imran Khan, a cricket-star-turned-politician whose party is boycotting the elections to protest Mr. Musharraf’s clampdown on the judiciary. “The feudals themselves always switch sides to whoever will come to power.”


This dynamic often makes elections in Pakistan a clash of egos rather than issues, stifling debate and preventing newcomers of lesser breeding from breaking onto the scene. It is also a central reason why functioning democracy hasn’t taken hold in the 60 years since Pakistan was created. Democratic experiments have often collapsed because of elected officials’ autocratic behavior and corruption, ending in army coups such as the one that brought Mr. Musharraf to power in 1999.

The best known of Pakistan’s feudal dynasties is the family of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the chairman for life of the Pakistan People’s Party until she was assassinated on Dec. 27. She was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a landlord in Pakistan’s Sindh province and the party’s founder. In picking new leadership, the avowedly modern and liberal PPP followed the succession plan laid out in Ms. Bhutto’s will — naming her widower and her 19-year-old son, an Oxford University undergraduate who spent most of the past decade outside Pakistan, as co-chairmen.

With antigovernment anger sweeping Pakistan in the wake of Ms. Bhutto’s death, PPP officials say they expect a large sympathy vote on Feb. 18 to bring their party to power. They may find it hard, however, to translate this sympathy into electoral gains in Pakistan’s feudal-minded countryside, particularly here in Punjab, which chooses 148 of the country’s 272 legislators.

Touching Hemlines

The feudals’ lock on power is apparent in this constituency, a sprawling plain of mud-brick villages separated by wheat and sugar-cane fields. Shah Jewna’s noble cousins, educated in top Western schools and versed in global affairs, have come a long way from their ancestors, who kept local peasants in medieval-style serfdom. But they retain vast tracts of farmland, doling out favors, money and jobs. When they appear in public, villagers bow down, and, in an ancient show of obeisance, touch the hemlines of their clothes.

The three cousin-candidates represent the family’s rival branches: Mr. Hayat and Mr. Bokhari share a paternal great-grandfather, whose brother was Ms. Hussain’s paternal grandfather.

Ms. Hussain, the current PPP candidate, is a sharp-tongued, gray-haired former Pakistani ambassador to Washington. She began her political career in the 1970s with the PPP, and has since partaken in all of Pakistan’s three major political movements.

In 1997, she was elected to Parliament as a candidate from the Pakistan Muslim League, the conservative party of Ms. Bhutto’s foe, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. By then one of Ms. Bhutto’s most virulent critics, she served as a cabinet minister in Mr. Sharif’s government.

Once Mr. Sharif was ousted by Mr. Musharraf in the 1999 coup, the party split into two rival movements. One branch, PML (N), remained loyal to Mr. Sharif. The other, PML (Q), allied itself with Mr. Musharraf.

[Abida Hussain]

The next parliamentary elections came in 2002, and Ms. Hussain represented PML (Q). Mr. Hayat campaigned on Ms. Bhutto’s PPP ticket. He won.

Switching Sides

Once in office, Mr. Hayat, too, switched sides: Joining up with Mr. Musharraf, he became Pakistan’s interior minister and is running for PML (Q) in the current election. In a reverse turnaround, Ms. Hussain reconciled with Ms. Bhutto, later festooning Shah Jewna’s roads with oversize campaign posters that depict her alongside the assassinated former premier.

Mr. Bokhari, the youngest cousin, said he had a hard time picking a party. He first considered running as a PPP candidate. (His maternal uncle runs the party’s Punjab branch.) But when Ms. Hussain gained the Bhutto camp’s nod, Mr. Bokhari instead embraced Mr. Sharif. He explained his choice by saying that the campaign symbol of PML (N) is a tiger, a fellow feline of his own zodiac sign, Leo.

Electoral records show that a fourth, independent candidate is on the constituency’s ballot — though it’s hard to find evidence of his campaign on Shah Jewna’s roads, which are covered with frescoes and posters praising the three cousins. The candidate, a 38-year-old former Asian Development Bank economist named Sarfraz Ahmed Bhatti, said he’s had difficulty with the local mentality. Many people here, he complained, “still think that this whole constituency is an estate owned by the family.”

Mr. Hayat, the incumbent, is unapologetic about his family’s role as he greets a visitor in his manor here, decorated with stuffed antelopes and portraits of him with President George W. Bush, Prince Charles of Wales and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

“Whether people like it or not, it’s the local families that matter,” Mr. Hayat said over tea and biscuits. “It’s not about PPP or PML (Q) here. It’s Abida [Hussain] versus Faisal [Hayat] — that’s how it is, and that’s how it’s always been.”

Mr. Hayat, a trim and mustachioed Cambridge-educated soccer enthusiast, said he sat on the boards that drew up election platforms for both PPP and PML (Q), and closely inspected the PML (N) manifesto. “All three are the same,” he exclaims. “Believe me, there is no difference.”

Some voters here, in fact, say they don’t know their favorite candidate’s party affiliation. “I’ll definitely vote for Faisal Hayat,” said cobbler Mohammed Riyaz. “I think he used to be with PPP, but I’m not so sure with what party he’s now.”

Mr. Hayat’s Appeal

Mr. Hayat’s appeal has many sources. His 375 acres of farmland provide employment to peasants. As a government minister, he secured development funds for the area. Most importantly, he is also Shah Jewna’s hereditary spiritual leader.

All three rival cousins trace their lineage to Prophet Muhammad and descend from a medieval Sufi saint whose shrine attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the village every year. But Mr. Hayat, as head of the family’s most senior branch, is the only one of the three to have inherited the title of custodian of the Shah Jewna shrine.

The temple, a pastel structure of soaring spires, turrets and minarets, is plastered with election posters of Mr. Hayat. Ten days a year, he trades Western-style clothes for a flowing white turban and greets pilgrims at the temple.

In the run-up to the vote, neither Mr. Hayat nor Ms. Hussain have been out to hold a big rally or to visit their voters, they said. Instead, they have received well-wishers and supplicants at their own estates here.

[Raza Ali Bokhari]

A recent meeting on the lawn outside Mr. Hayat’s home was a major affair. A couple hundred notables from the constituency showed up on a cloudy afternoon, as servants prepared vats of food. Once Mr. Hayat emerged outdoors, he was flanked by bodyguards with swaying Kalashnikov assault rifles and a land-mine detector.

A court poet intoned for several minutes. “You are a hero for us, a hero of a kind that’s born only once a century,” Imtiaz Ali Hassani recited in a high-pitched voice, glancing every few seconds at Mr. Hayat. “Whenever I imagine a flower, I see your face! Even your enemies praise you, for all you have done for the people, for all the megaprojects you’ve brought here to us.”

The biggest of these projects is a $16 million bridge over the river Chenab that, following Mr. Hayat’s lobbying, the Pakistani government has started to build. A tributary of the Indus, the Chenab separates Shah Jewna from the highway to Punjab’s capital, Lahore, and from the nearest city, Jhang. Currently, Shah Jewna’s residents must use a century-old bridge that’s barely wide enough for one-way traffic and is often gridlocked for hours. The delays prevent local children from studying in bigger towns and, villagers say, have caused deaths as ambulances await their turn to cross the river.

“We’re not like the feudals of the past, who could just sit back and reflect in past glory,” Mr. Hayat said. “Whenever I’ve been in government, I’ve given people here development projects and jobs.”

As Mr. Hayat fed supporters after his campaign event, a few dozen laborers in torn clothes squatted for a break down the road, in Ms. Hussain’s sugar-cane field. She is a major shareholder in one of Pakistan’s biggest conglomerates, the Packages Group, and also owns a 1,000-acre estate in Shah Jewna that includes a horse-breeding farm, cotton fields and mango orchards.

‘She Is Our Sustenance’

“She is our sustenance,” said one of the workers, Ahmed Ali, as fellow laborers — some of them children — chewed sugar-cane stalks. “All of us will vote for her, even if we have to walk all the way to Islamabad for it. Whatever she says, we will do.”

Ms. Hussain has run her campaign from her walled-off compound, perched on a veranda decorated with black-and-white photographs of her ancestors and of family racing horses named Montreux, Le Bourgeois and Right Royal.

Ms. Hussain, who was educated in Switzerland and then at an art school in Florence, Italy, listened to the concerns of a few dozen villagers, who sprang to their feet whenever she got up. One wanted a police complaint against him withdrawn; she made the call to the police station. Another sought a government job.

“I’m one of the ultimate feudals of the Punjab,” Ms. Hussain said later over lunch indoors with a visitor, as her guests squatted for a communal meal on the veranda. “But I’m also the bonded slave and indentured laborer serving my locality.”

Between dispensing favors, Ms. Hussain maintained a running political commentary. Pakistani cities, she lamented, are now overrun by a “yuppie, nouveaux, crass, disgusting lot.” Mr. Musharraf, she said, is a tyrant who had murdered Ms. Bhutto. When reminded that Mr. Musharraf has denied such accusations — saying he doesn’t assassinate people because he is “not a feudal and not a tribal” — Ms. Hussain smiled. “Poor thing, he’s a son of clerks,” she said. “His mother was just a typist.”

Every few minutes, Ms. Hussain’s BlackBerry phone rang with updates on the day’s proceedings in Mr. Hayat’s camp. “I also have my spies,” she beamed, repeatedly referring to her nemesis as “this swine.”

Mr. Hayat, informed of the epithet, said he will never call Ms. Hussain names. This approach seems to be playing well with Shah Jewna’s voters, several of whom say they are put off by Ms. Hussain’s temper and unrestrained language.

Mr. Hayat estimates his lead at 25,000 to 30,000 votes, and figures that added sympathy for the PPP following Ms. Bhutto’s death could erode it by “a few thousand” ballots at most. (He beat Ms. Hussain by 10,765 votes in 2002, election records show.)

Tough Odds

Ms. Hussain said she knows she is facing tough odds. She also isn’t high on the chances of her husband, a former speaker of Pakistan’s Parliament, who is running in a district a few dozen miles away. “I and my husband will probably lose,” she said.

But Ms. Hussain is expecting a Feb. 18 victory by her Harvard-educated daughter, Sughra Imam, a Parliament candidate from PPP in an adjoining constituency. Her rival: Mr. Hayat’s younger brother, who also happens to be the former brother-in-law of the third cousin, Mr. Bokhari.

“It’s all in the family here,” Mr. Bokhari said.



Filed under Democracy, Society

5 responses to “Dynasties, Not Democracy, May Decide Pakistan’s Vote

  1. thelandofpure

    The wikipedia has shown the picture of our Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon him) in their article on Muhammad. It is highly deplorable act and i request you all to order the wikipedia to remove this picture which is fueling religious hatred. Who ever has placed this picture is a true terrorist as he is trying to incite more then 1 billion Muslims of the world


    Please visit the site to sign the petition. Also try to write to the Wikipedia authorities so that they can remove it immediately.
    M Junaid Khan
    The Land of Pure

  2. nuzhat

    Junaid, you should just chill…. and don’t get incited…it is as simple as that! yeh hum musalman har baat par haathey sey kyon ukhar jatey hain?

  3. sharam se doob marein hum apne ellack-shunz par

    that poilticains of the order of fshayat and chandi-bibi can make statements like the following with a straight face is the severest indictment of the whole process of three-legged racing.

    “I’m one of the ultimate feudals of the Punjab,” intones the, um, lady proudly.

    “Whenever I’ve been in government, I’ve given people here development projects and jobs,” boasts the, er… gentleman.

    nonetheless, i continue to believe that the biggest hurdle to the establishment of deomcracy is not the prevalence of these sorry candidates, but the breaking of the silsila by self-proclaimed saviours in uniform.

  4. MK

    I am ashamed to death by the attitude of my fellow voters who vote for these feudals.
    I am also astonished at both these candidates for calling themselves family of feudals. Interestingly they have usurped the Gov.t owned land in the name of leasing it for 99 years. Also their families were rewarded by the british for becoming muslim traitors.
    How dare both of them call themselves feudal lords?
    I know both of them inside out. they are as cheap as the dust under my slipper.

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