Villagers fell at Syed Qutab Ali Shah’s feet as he emerged from the shrine complex in Pakistan dedicated to his ancestors, seeking blessings they believe can cure the sick or bring prosperity.
The 30-year-old Sufi mystic’s following gives him a head start in his run for a seat in the May 11 national election. If he wins, he’ll join a parliament where his grandfather served and which in 2008 appointed his uncle, Yousuf Raza Gilani, prime minister. Two of Gilani’s sons and a brother are also candidates.
“I’d vote for this family even if they put up a thief as a candidate -- they see what we can’t,” said Ghulam Sarwar among the Sandhilianwali tombs in Punjab. “My pir is everything,” he said, using a term for a revered figure in the Sufi Muslim sect.
With rural areas accounting for two thirds of seats, the devotion of villagers like Sarwar to clans and local landowners has generated policies eschewing higher taxes on the wealthy -- even in an economy where government revenue is less than half that of global peers. About 80 percent of lawmakers in the last parliament owed their office to votes based on control of land or business, religious devotion or family group, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency estimates.
“Corruption, foreign policy and the economy” aren’t issues in villages and small towns, said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, chief executive of the Islamabad-based institute, an independent research group known by its acronym PILDAT. “Get somebody a job, get him released from police custody and his family will become your voters. That’s what the feudal is good at.”
In Pakistan, the term “feudal” refers to a person who is a major landowner or local power broker. The sway of the feudals reflects an uneven distribution of wealth, with two thirds of village households landless, while 2 percent of landowners control 45 percent of the cultivated acreage, according to a 2012 report prepared for the U.K. parliament.
The average declared assets of members of the lower house of parliament elected at the last poll in 2008 was $1 million, a three-fold increase in six years, an analysis by PILDAT showed. The government estimates annual per capita income at $1,200.
The ruling class “appropriate most of the resources to their own advantage and exclude the masses from the benefits of the economy,” even if their influence has been reduced by urbanization, said Rashid Khan, who teaches politics at the University of Sargodha in central Pakistan. Frequent military coups have stunted the growth of democracy, thwarting efforts to make parliament more representative, he also said.
This month’s election marks the first time a civilian administration has finished a full five-year term and handed power to a successor government elected through a ballot. The army has ruled Pakistan for about half its history since independence in 1947.
As Pakistanis head to the polls amid escalating Taliban violence, one group is attempting to break the dominance of Pakistan’s two big parties -- President Asif Ali Zardari’s Peoples Party, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, which is leading in polls.
Ex-cricket star Imran Khan has energized young voters with his slate of largely first-time politicians. Khan has vowed to create a task force to recover money linked to corruption and use it to fund education projects. He also aims to raise tax collections by ensuring the wealthy make payments, and extending levies to all parts of the economy, including agriculture and the stock market.
Almost 70 percent of federal legislators failed to file income tax returns in 2011, according to a study compiled by the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan in Islamabad. Pakistan’s government revenue amounted to less than 13 percent of gross domestic product last year, compared with 28 percent for emerging market and developing economies as a group, according to the International Monetary Fund.
About 800 kilometers (500 miles) south of the Sufi shrine, the grip of the landowning class is evidenced in a Sindh province area where tenant farmers say they pay three-quarters of their annual profits to estate owners -- and vote the way they are told.
Where villagers have shown defiance, cattle have been stolen, debts doubled and women harassed, the tenant farmers said in interviews, asking that neither they nor their settlement be named to avoid retribution. The worst punishment is eviction, they said.
The breaking up of estates has been stymied by lawmakers and a 1989 Supreme Court judgment that said capping holdings was un-Islamic. The then-ruling Peoples Party, whose Sindh bastion is a stronghold of big landowners, blocked a June proposal for a nationwide tax on agriculture, which represents a fifth of the economy. It said the levy was the preserve of state governments.
One Sindh landowner says he gives tenants free rein on voting.
“My farmers have the right to vote for whoever they believe is good for them,” Sardar Kamal Khan Chang, standing for parliament on behalf of Zardari party’s in Badin, where his family owns 5,000 acres, said April 15. “Not all the landlords are like this though.”
In Khairpur, 300 kilometers north of Karachi, Syed Pervez Ali Shah is seeking a fourth election victory in state assembly polls that will be held alongside the national ballot. During visits to 11 villages on a single day, Shah delivers speeches, requesting the support of clan elders over snacks and soft drinks served at their guesthouses.
If a candidate is convincing, he’s typically promised the community’s ballots on polling day -- a tally possibly running into the thousands. If not, the elders stay silent, enabling a face-saving exit.
“As an independent, I can’t promise treasures,” Shah said April 28. “But win or lose, I will be here year-round to help people,” he said, promising to ease a confrontation with a neighboring village over the killing of four people -- after the elections.
In Sandhilianwali, the family of Pir Ali has been in politics for decades, switching allegiances to boost its chances. His grandfather was a member of Pakistan’s upper house of parliament for Sharif’s Muslim League. The current pir is standing for Zardari’s party.
“Politics is just like worship for us,” he said of the willingness to jump parties if it delivers benefits to supporters. “We have to take care of our people. The school, the dispensary, and post office you see are built on our land.”
Sufi saints were at the forefront of Islam’s spread through South Asia. Former premier Gilani, found guilty of contempt and ousted by the Supreme Court in 2012 over corruption charges facing Zardari, a conviction that bars him from the election, claims descent from one such holyman. Sharif has allied with Pir Pagara, the head of a Sufi order in Sindh, to wrestle seats away from the Peoples Party.
Bashir Ahmed, a follower of Pir Ali, isn’t surprised. “Who can defeat a pir?” he said. “Imagine those million people who have been blessed by this family. Do you think they will ditch him?”
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