In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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