This last weekend saw re-polling in constituencies throughout Pakistan in response to hundreds of complaints of vote rigging. Complaints ranged from the documentation of over 100 percent voter turnout in some polling stations to stories of polling staff being kidnapped and released after votes had been submitted. But  vote rigging was not the only way in which citizen turnout was manipulated in these elections. 

One of the most important aspects for understanding Pakistan’s elections is the role of patronage as a crucial means for securing votes throughout huge areas of the country. So crucial that one can say that the election process was not only a battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate directly but also for reaching influencers that command deep wells of votes, especially in those areas controlled by feudal landlords.

In Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven says elections in Pakistan are decided through a system of patronage between political parties and feudal landlords, clan leaders, and “urban bosses”. This elite thrives and maintains its power through promises of government jobs, giving out loans that are allowed to default, favors for relatives and allies, and personal and economic security for the poor.

“Patronage does play a big role,” according to Dr. Taimur Rahman, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Lahore University of Management Sciences in an interview with IPS, “but I wouldn’t want us to come to the conclusion that it’s all-consuming either.” There have been instance in past Pakistani elections, he said, where patronage ties have been broken.  “The 1970 election, for instance.”

“But in the absence of… an ideology or of a political force that inspires people in some fundamental way, there, I think, patronage begins to play a very important role.”

In these latest elections patronage was essential in securing votes for the triumphant parties, Rahman said, notably the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Land, Jobs, Money, and Development

Examples come in all shapes and sizes. Before the current caretaker government took over in March, the then-ruling PPP announced through an advertisement in the Sindh press (a PPP stronghold) that they would be giving out 27, 500 plots of government land to poor people in the region. Elsewhere, then Prime Minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, also of the PPP, ordered that 5 billion rupees (around 51,000 dollars) be allocated to PPP members of Parliament (MNPs) and it is believed that this money was used as political capital for those MNPs to seek patronage from their various constituencies.

Where did this money come from? According to The News International, these funds “were diverted from 106 development projects, including major dams, health, education, floods and neglected areas such as Balochistan, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan and many others.” In a recent New York Times piece, Declan Walsh called the practice “a patronage slush fund” of about 200.000 dollars to spend on ‘development.’”

In the Punjab, Nawaz Sharif’s victorious PML –N was accused of “pre-poll rigging” because of their decision to make 100,000 temporary posts at government jobs in Punjab permanent.  The appointments violated a ban by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on making government post hires just before election time. But the PML–N held fast that the jobs in question had been decided on a substantial time prior the elections.

Then there were the networks that would deliver votes for money or favors, according to Rahman. Favors would include “things like getting a street fixed, getting it paved, getting running water, gas, an electricity connection — that sort of stuff.”

In NA-128, where Rahman campaigned, for instance, the villages had seen “enormous developmental work” over the last couple of months, “which no doubt solidified and delivered votes for the established party.”

Enter the PTI — Business as Usual

Even Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf party, which claimed it would stamp out corruption within 90 days once in power, was unable or unwilling (or both) to withstand patronage ties. The party recruited some of the most influential landowning politicians to contest these elections on its ticket.

In Lahore, for example, the PTI recruited candidates from longtime biraderi networks — a kinship-group related to each other by blood and sometimes occupation — and through them their extension of patronage votes.

“In terms of the framework of what he’s advocating, it’s nothing new,” Rahman, who’s critical of the party, said. This contrasts with the popular media portrayal of Khan as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption, and pro-social reform candidate bent on changing the country to a “Naya [New] Pakistan”.

While he’s running on an anti-establishment ticket, his candidacy, ultimately, has done little to change the system, according to Rahman.  “At the end of the day, as his star rose in power in terms of popularity, it was again these very same political families that jumped ship and joined Imran Khan.”







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