The Pakistan People’s Party swept the 2008 elections in its traditional stronghold of rural Sindh, thanks largely to the massive wave of sympathy generated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the enduring mystique of the Bhutto clan. This time, however, the PPP may be in for a fight.
According to many Sindhi writers and intellectuals, gone are the days – if they ever existed in the first place – when votes in Sindh could be won based on ideological belief and political affiliation. These analysts predict that this time around, it is the influence of local leaders and tribal chiefs that will determine who wins and loses in the upcoming polls.
Writer Shahab Osto scoffs at the PPP’s claim that it will sweep the election on the basis of its performance in the past five years and its age-old slogan of roti, kapra aur makan (food, clothing and shelter).
“People will not vote on the basis of political ideology or emotional attachment to the PPP,” says Osto. “Now, it is local influence at the constituency level that will matter and these feudals will cash in on it. We will see one evil or another winning the election.”
He adds that although Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ideology had previously attracted the people of Sindh, garnering sympathy votes from emotionally charged people, that is no longer enough.
“Since there is no concept of real governance and politicisation in Sindh, the people are in the grip of local influentials who, with the help of the police, still control the vast majority of people and can win the election,” he said.
According to Osto, General Ziaul Haq started the process of depoliticisation and, in doing so, made the individual more powerful than political parties.
“[The] State and its institutions are not empowered, political parties have no social agenda, and the PPP has squandered the unconditional support people extended to the Bhutto clan by cheating innocent people and not fulfilling their basic needs. Therefore, the majority of votes will now go into the pocket of influentials, irrespective of their party affiliations,” he says.
Today, it seems that political parties are catching on to these realities. Alongside the PPP, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Muslim League-Functional have also joined the race of approaching tribal and community heads, often overlooking jarring previous differences. With the carrot of stakes in the future government being dangled in front of them, major reshuffling can be witnessed these days as prominent people jump from one party to another.
For his part, veteran journalist Sohail Sangi claims that hardly 15% of votes are cast on a political or ideological basis, while the rest are cast on the basis of local influence.
“There has been nexus between criminals, police, law enforcers and influentials in rural Sindh. Whenever a person is kidnapped or arrested, he knocks at the influential’s door, who resolves all issues. This cycle goes on. Thus, people are bound to follow this person’s orders,” says Sangi.
However, he stresses that the situation in urban areas is totally different. There, parties matter more than personalities. “Yes, there is an ethnic and religious factor at work in Karachi too, but the MQM, Jamaat-e-Islami, and even PPP candidates, are mainly getting votes on the performance of their parties and programmes,” he says.
Zulfiqar Halepto, a columnist who closely follows Sindh politics, believes that the PPP has no towering personality left to command popular support. According to him, the party leadership has realized this, which is why they have also started approaching local heads.
Nevertheless, he says, history must not be completely ignored. The charismatic personality of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the sacrifices rendered by him and his family are still dominant in the political sphere of Sindh. “I agree the PPP has not delivered much during its last three governments, but whenever the elections are held, the majority of people cast their votes for this party’s candidates, whether they are influential or not,” he says, referring to the late Pir Pagara, Nawab Sultan Khan Chandio and other tribal heads who lost their seats to PPP candidates in 1988 and 2008.
Writer and civil society activist Naseer Memon also says the Bhutto family has given the people of Singh little more than emotional slogans. He claims that in the upcoming set-up, the feudal leaders will play a dominant role.
“There is no ideological politics [anymore],” says Memon. “It can be a great opportunity for Sindhi nationalists to fill this gap and emerge as an alternative to the feudals, but it is most unfortunate that they have developed differences and have decided to contest elections against each other.”
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2013.