Zulfiqar Mirza’s son Hasnain Mirza, center, speaks with supporters and party workers in Badin. (Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg)

Feudal Landlords May Hold Balance of Power in Nuclear Pakistan

(Bloomberg) -- Near the rural town of Badin in southern Pakistan, about a four-hour drive from the financial capital of Karachi, dozens of men wait through the night for a chance to meet with Zulfiqar Mirza.

The landowner’s family holds sway in a part of Sindh province the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, and villagers go to Mirza for everything from employment to education to settling disputes. One of them, 69-year-old Khalid Hussain, said this month he needed help after being abandoned by his children.

The Mirzas “help people out,” Hussain said while waiting at the family’s 700-acre estate. “I just want a job to feed my stomach.”

Feudal Landlords May Hold Balance of Power in Nuclear Pakistan

Local power brokers like the Mirzas may end up as kingmakers in the nuclear-armed nation after a July 25 election, with polls showing that no single party is likely to win a majority in Pakistan’s parliament. For national politicians, courting large rural landholders known as “electables” is a Catch 22: Their support is essential to win elections in Pakistan, but many also tend to oppose measures like modernizing the country’s labor and tax laws that would boost economic growth in the cash-strapped nation.

Known as biradiri, the rural patronage system helps explain why Pakistan scores the lowest in Asia on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index after Afghanistan, North Korea and Cambodia. While urbanization and redistricting has steadily eroded the power of rural politicians -- about 10 city constituencies were created this year -- in many areas they still can provide favors, administer justice and even pressure villagers into voting for a certain candidate.

Feudalism is still “very strong” in the countryside, said Mustafa Kamal, the former mayor of Karachi, who heads the urban-focused Pak Sarzameen Party. “The common man does not have that much strength to stand up to the feudal lord -- he will just squeeze him like anything.”

That power structure has come under attack. Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has seen his popularity surge, has sought to rally younger, urban voters by denouncing feudalistic and dynastic parties that still dominate Pakistan’s political scene. Khan, whose anti-corruption campaign helped spur Sharif’s arrest, has pledged to widen Pakistan’s low tax base and strengthen government institutions.

Since the 1970s, the country has alternately been ruled by the military, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz led by Nawaz Sharif, a three-time prime minister serving a jail sentence for corruption. Yet even while railing against feudalism Khan has found it necessary to court key rural politicians, particularly in the breadbasket province of Punjab, which provides more than half the nation’s federal seats.

Feudal Landlords May Hold Balance of Power in Nuclear Pakistan

The Mirza family in Badin is running with the Grand Democratic Alliance, a minority party that hasn’t said who it will back for prime minister after the election. Hasnain Mirza, the 34-year-old son of Zulfiqar, acknowledged his family’s political lineage but also denied it was feudal.

“The basis of support is from all the services rendered to them,” Mirza said. “Where we fail to render services, people are free to walk with their backs against us. It’s everybody’s free will who they support and how long they deal with it.”

Mirza also said the electorate has become more enlightened, and cracks were emerging in the biradiri system. “Those politicians who rely on patronage are fighting against time,” he said.

Feudal Landlords May Hold Balance of Power in Nuclear Pakistan

Protests against landlords and their families have also taken place in cities. During a rally this month in Karachi, the convoy of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari -- head of the Pakistan Peoples Party and son of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- was pelted with stones. At the last election more than 10 feudal politicians lost their seats.

Majid Khan, a 34-year-old stevedore from Karachi joined protests in June when his dynastic representative, who had barely visited the constituency in five years, campaigned in the port-side area of Keamari. “Every leader who has not served us for five years should” be asked to answer to the people, he said.

“People are tired of the old guard,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at the SOAS South Asia Institute in London. Voters aged 18 to 35 comprise 44 percent of the electorate, she said, and many will likely vote for Khan.

Feudal Landlords May Hold Balance of Power in Nuclear Pakistan

Eliminating the system of political patronage in rural Pakistan “is not a one-day affair,” said Agha Siraj Durrani, a dynastic politician with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which has controlled Sindh’s government since 2008. Durrani was the most recent speaker of the province’s parliament, a role previously occupied by his father and uncle.

Even though his family wealth has been diluted over generations, Durrani said his surname continues to hold sway under the biradiri system in his constituency after 200 years: “You look after them and they stand by you.”

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