The sun is setting when Makhdoom Shahabuddin’s SUV rolls into yet another scruffy, dirt-poor agricultural community in his constituency in the deep south of Punjab province.
In sonorous Saraiki, a minority language spoken locally, the former cabinet minister and veteran politician talks of the achievements of the Pakistan Peoples party (PPP) and of future plans. “This country should be great, not plundered by its own people,” Shahabuddin, a PPP grandee and a local landowner, tells the few-score peasant farmers gathered before the low stage.
The men cheer, swig back the soft drinks distributed by party workers, and disappear into the dusk on motorbikes, camel-drawn carts, donkeys and by foot. Shahabuddin drives off – but not to his sprawling, if spartan, country residence. Instead, he has a series of very different meetings scheduled: secret rendezvous where, to a large extent, the result in the 11 May polls will be determined.
Shahabuddin, 66, nominated as prime minister last year before allegations of graft led the PPP to look elsewhere, has been campaigning across these flat fields and orchards, many of which lie on his own extensive estates, for more than four decades. In 2008, he easily beat his cousin, a landowner and industrialist who stood for a faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. But this election, though he is confident of victory, may be his last.
“Politics has become such a dirty game. It’s getting so hard,” Shahabuddin told the Guardian during three days spent on the campaign trial last week.
For many years, like many other Pakistani aristocrats or “feudals” as they are known locally, Shahabuddin could simply rely on his name and status to bring in votes. The southern Punjab – one of the mostimpoverished parts of south Asia – has been run by major landowners for centuries. The loyalty of thousands of families used to be unquestioning. Also, as a direct descendant of one of the missionaries who converted the local population to Islam more than 700 years ago, Shahabuddin is revered as a spiritual leader with powers of blessing that can heal illnesses, solve problems and bring fortune.
But now economic development, marginally better education and a generally less deferential culture – reinforced by Pakistan’s vibrant, often vitriolic media – mean history and status are no longer enough to win over the 150,000 voters of national assembly seat 194.
“People are simply interested in what they can get. It’s all about being on the winning side and you can’t have principles or ideologies if that’s your only aim,” said Shahabuddin’s nephew, who is campaigning for simultaneous provincial polls. “It’s personal relationships which ensure support.”
This is where the semi-secret meetings play their crucial role. Cash is not involved. There is nothing illegal. But politics in Pakistan is about a cascade of favours from the most powerful patrons – in this case the ex-cabinet minister candidate – to the lowest – a small trader, bureaucrat, cleric or farmer who is influential in a street or village. Loyalty – expressed in the form of votes – flows back up.
One day it is lunch with a former policeman, whose home is surprisingly luxurious given his relatively low salary, then tea with a group of businessmen and finally an evening with a tribal chief with many thousands of followers. The chief was previously loyal to Shahabuddin’s rival but hopes for an official post after the polls.
There are other issues to contend with. The southern Punjab has been hit by rising violence targeting the Shia Muslim minority, historically loyal to the more inclusive and more “secular” PPP.
A Shia candidate with “nuisance value” is being funded, Shahabuddin says, by his opponent. Further meetings are necessary to neutralise the threat. Simultaneously, however, a deal has been done with the local branch of Jamaat e-Ulema-e-Islami, a party of Sunni hardline religious conservatives blamed by many for encouraging sectarian extremists.
Then there is the national situation. Though many ills are blamed on the provincial government, run by the PML, others are blamed on the outgoing PPP-led federal government. Chief among them are power cuts and a failing economy. An income support programme launched for the poorest families is likely to help win women’s votes and the promise of a separate province of South Punjab is popular. But, says Babar Dogar, a political journalist, “people are annoyed at the PPP”.
There is one final factor. Over In recent decades Pakistan has changed in ways that leave Shahabuddin – who quotes Winston Churchill, uses words such as “lingo” and “chum”, speaks admiringly of British colonial administrators and smokes Benson & Hedges cigarettes – looking increasingly out of place.
Another evening, and another mass meeting. Several thousand farmers cram under a tent in a field outside the village of Ghari Aktar Khan. Shahabuddin talks, lists his achievements, is heckled, jokes, prays and is cheered once again.
“That was a grand jalsa (rally). It will be the talk of the town,” he says, driving away.