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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 February 2008, 07:33 GMT
Feudal shadow over Pakistan elections
By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Punjab province

"Lineage is still important, but it is no longer paramount," says Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi, smiling as he makes his way through a crowd of potential voters.
Makhdoom Shah Mehmood Qureshi
Mr Qureshi (l) tries to downplay the impact of feudalism

"Now everybody has to win the vote."

Mr Qureshi is the head of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in the province of Punjab and a member of its central executive committee.

He is canvassing for a place in the national parliament in elections due to be held on 18 February.

The PPP is Pakistan's largest political party and Mr Qureshi is one of the party's pivotal leaders.

Punjab is seen by many as where the elections will be won or lost - and the rural vote is vital in what is still a predominantly agricultural society.

"In such circumstances, all parties have to field a number of feudal politicians," explains one analyst. "As they see it, only the feudals can assure certain victory."

Immense influence

The term "feudal or "feudal lord" refers to the large-scale landholding families in Pakistan.

Villagers discuss politics
Village men discuss the forthcoming elections

By dint of their landholdings, which they rent to tenant farmers, the feudal lords are able to exercise immense financial and political influence.

In many cases they are also able to claim the loyalty of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of "murids" (devotees) who believe they are directly descended from local saints.

On top of this, they usually control the "station and katchery" (the police and the courts) which ensures the compliance, willing or not, of the local populace.

"Yes, we will vote for Shah Mehmood," says one impassioned young PPP supporter in a village 20km (12.4 miles) from the city of Multan.

"He is a good man with no criminal charge ever being brought against him."

But as a debate develops in the village market, another youth taunts the first: "You are only doing it because his men resolved your father's real estate woes."

Mr Qureshi's family has for centuries been among the largest land owners around Multan city and they do indeed claim to be of a saintly lineage.

So you wouldn't bet against him winning on 18 February.

Final arbiters still?

Most of the Pakistan's leading politicians come from the feudal class - the most famous being assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Syed Fakhr Imam
Syed Fakhr Imam - says feudalism is just a mindset

Many believe though, that the power of the feudals is no longer what it used to be.

"They used to be gods on earth, the final arbiter in all disputes in the area, and a law unto themselves," one political analyst - who wished to remain anonymous - pointed out.

"In most parts of Pakistan, that is no longer the case... the state has grown stronger and people more willing to stand up for themselves," he says.

But he accepts that their feudal strengths mean that, come election day, they still have the clout to outfight any ordinary competitors.

"What has changed now is that people tend to wait till the end to see who is most likely to win," says local journalist Jamshed Rizwani.

"Then they vote for that guy in droves... so that it ensures that they will have some access to the "'station and katchery".

All we can hope for is to back the winning candidate so that we get access to justice
Akhtar, villager

"What is seen as a basic right - access to justice - is used as a crude but very effective electioneering tool," Mr Rizwani says.

The feudal leaders themselves say their power is overrated and the rural folk increasingly are independent in their outlook.

"You can see yourself I have to personally go to every village to talk to the people and ask them for their vote," says Makhdoom Qureshi.

"People do listen to you because of the family you come from... but no longer will they vote for you, if you fail to deliver on your promises."


Another candidate with a similar background contesting in another constituency of Multan is Syed Fakhr Imam.

Mr Imam, a former speaker of parliament, is a veteran election winner in this part of the country, as is his wife.

Villagers laughed when asked if a poorer person might be a candidate

Their opponents say this is largely due to their status as one of the premier feudal families in Pakistan.

But Mr Imam argues that is no longer the case.

"How can the few hundred or so followers that I have make a dent in a constituency that has hundreds of thousands of people?" he asks.

"The feudalism that we see in Pakistan today is more associated with a mindset.

"It has more to do with how military dictators hold unto power, rather than poor landholders who have enough to do just dealing with increasing taxation."

But the common man tends to disagree.

In the village of Kachian Dukana, about 10km outside Multan city, people say the feudal landlords will probably win most seats.

But at least, they say, the landlords do actually go to every village to ask people to vote for them.

"Previously, they would decide between themselves, taking turns at being elected," says one man, Abdullah.

When asked why none of the farmers or other poor people consider standing as candidates, the group burst out laughing.

"We would all say he is an idiot, and treat it more like a joke than anything," says another man, Akhtar.

"Everybody knows you cannot win elections if you aren't rich and powerful. All we can hope for is to back the winning candidate so that we get access to justice."

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