Pakistani politics is popularly perceived to be based on the local power of landed bigwigs. But an unusual thing happened in the lead up to the May 2013 election in a constituency in central Punjab.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) (which eventually won) issued a party ticket for a provincial seat to a relative, a usual enough occurrence. But in this case the ticket went to someone who was not locally popular. He was elected from this constituency in 2002 and was the runner-up in 2008. Yet, he has no real performance record. According to most people I spoke to, he has a “feudal mentality” and has not delivered in return for votes. To top it off, he lives and works in distant Lahore, and is considered an outsider.
Opposing him was a local man, a member of one of the area’s largest biraderis (kinship groups). He ran for the first time in 2008, as an independent candidate, and despite receiving only 2800 votes in that election, he built a reputation over the last five years as a “worker”. He is easily accessible and well connected. His family has been part of the local government system and his two brothers are high-ranking bureaucrats, and he has used his contacts in the state to deliver. This has swung support strongly in his favour within the constituency. Encouraged by this, he approached the PML-N for a ticket, only to be refused in favour of a relative who had contested the previous two elections on a rival party’s ticket.
The local man decided to go ahead anyway and contested again as an independent, and began a campaign that grew quickly in strength and soon made him a stronger contender than the ex-member of the provincial assembly. Ten days before the election a member of the PML-N’s leadership stopped by the constituency for an election rally. According to my local sources, PML-N’s youth wing allegedly reported to him that they were bound to lose this seat because of the party’s decision to go with their relative. The party’s rally was also boycotted by the local candidate’s large biraderi.
A few days later the party issued a statement “opening” the seat. This meant that the party was no longer backing its own candidate, nor opposing the local man (who, rumour had it, was invited to join the PML-N in the case of a win).
Local will, it seemed, had prevailed over what in Pakistan is called the “jaagirdarana nizam”, or a ‘feudal system’ of politics. Different biraderis of the constituency had come together against a veteran, landed politician who had provided little and remained inaccessible to his voters. Instead, a man with far less experience but an apparent will to deliver was now set to win. And win he did.
Beyond this, however, something more has changed too. This local candidate was only one of many new candidates on almost all provincial seats in this district. In the three provincial constituencies where I spent some time in the run up to the election, the average number of candidates in 2002 was 5.3, in 2008 it was 4.6, and this time it was a whopping 15.6. Many of these candidates have never run before, or if they have, it was as part of the now defunct local government system.
Connecting with voters
The explosion of candidates for provincial assembly (PA) seats has heralded a number of visible changes. While the competition for national assembly (NA) seats was still being managed by local bigwigs, that for PA seats was far more open this time around. People appeared to be choosing and aligning more freely. Almost everywhere we found that while an entire village was voting for a single candidate for the NA seat, or at the most two candidates, at the provincial level the village was divided into multiple small groups that were aligned to different candidates. More importantly, these groups usually had direct contact with these candidates, who were all out and about the countryside, conducting small meetings in every village. Door-to-door campaigns are still rare, but such face-to-face contact between rural voters and candidates was also a rarity until the 2008 election.
Direct contact between voters and candidates has even greater significance in the post-18th Amendment environment, in which almost all ministries related to the delivery of public services were devolved from the centre to the provinces in 2010. This means that voters are now connecting directly not only to their representatives, but also to those that will have a direct say in the delivery of most rural services. The increased competitiveness on these seats means greater choice for the voter, and consequently, a greater ability to hold candidates directly accountable for their delivery records.
Emergence of new politicians
It also means a larger space for new politicians. If this trend crystallises, it could mean the injection of many new politicians within existing parties, as exemplified by the story above. Initially, this will probably include people with connections in the state, and large biraderis to draw upon. Slowly, however, it may start to draw in non-dynastic, unconnected first-timers. If the new government now brings back the system of local government – the usual route for the emergence of newer, less wealthy candidates – we may see the emergence of a dynamic, vibrant political scene that could work to marginalise the landed elite from politics without the need for structural reforms.
Writing for the Guardian, Jason Burke quoted a landlord politician as saying, "Politics has become such a dirty game. It's getting so hard". The man seems to be referring to exactly this trend. That, for the rest of us, is very good news.
(This is a modified version of an article that appeared in the Dawn Newspaper (Pakistan) on May 12th 2013) .