In Pakistan, all politics is local

While keeping across national matters is important, understanding local issues is key to winning elections.

    In Pakistan, all politics is local
    PPP supporters welcome Firdous Ashiq Awan, who has prioritised local politics in her area [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Sialkot, Pakistan - Among Pakistan's election candidates, Firdous Ashiq Awan is a bit of an outlier in the dataset.

    The 43-year-old from the eastern Punjab city of Sialkot is neither the daughter of a major landowner, nor is she related to any leading members of the country's political classes.

    And yet Awan is contesting the 2013 general election for the national assembly on a "general" ticket, rather than fighting for one of the parliamentary seats reserved for women. Moreover, she's the incumbent, having first taken the NA-111 seat in 2002 by a handy 46 percent of the total votes cast.

    Awan's success has been down to a combination of canny politics and remaining solidly connected to her 321,450 constituents' local problems.

    Firdous Ashiq Awan says she's out to change politics in
    Pakistan [Asad Hahsim/Al Jazeera]

    "For five years, my experience has been that I have tried to work according to the mandate given to me, and to give [my constituents] as much time as possible," she told Al Jazeera during an impromptu campaign stop at a small textile factory. "[I have] to make sure that the funds and resources allocated for them reach them in an honest way."

    Despite being a member of the national assembly, which sits in Islamabad, Awan made it a point to return to her constituency every weekend during her five year tenure, following up on programmes she had put in place here.

    Her projects range from vocational training for unskilled labourers to a 911-style hotline for pregnant mothers to call in order to receive antenatal and postnatal care free of charge, from providing crucial natural gas connections to much of the largely rural electoral district for the first time to opening an old people's home.

    Awan is proof that, while there may 342 seats in total up for grabs in Islamabad on Saturday, with federal ministries, house subcommittees and all manner of national policies to be formulated, what makes a successful politician in Pakistan is not national rhetoric: it's a connection to local problems and dynamics.

    Awan herself was asked to vacate her post as federal information minister by her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) in 2012 for spending too much time in Sialkot, rather than focusing on the rest of the country.

    "My party leadership's complaint was that I was a minister for all of Pakistan, not just for one constituency. So they wanted me to spend every weekend in a different province, rather than spending it in my own constituency. So those were their reservations, which were valid," she said. "They made me the minister of 342 constituencies, and my target was my own people: the people who had given me their votes, to work towards their betterment."

    That connection to the local, however, also comes with a flipside.

    Awan says that while she was putting into place social welfare programmes and making herself available to her constituents, she also rejected the traditional modes of exercising power through what is known locally as the "thana-kutchery" system - a term which encompasses the notion that supporters of a political leader can submit petitions to them to intercede on their behalf in most matters, regardless of their relative legality, and to expect a favourable outcome.

    "My biggest crime when I came here was to end the thana-kutchery culture," she said. "I have been trying to give them a different vision. I have given so much employment to people, to educated young people. And have tried that they vote [for me] based on that."

    "But people," she complained, "want that when they call me up, that being a parliamentarian, I arrive at the thana. And the politics of the thana is the very thing that I want to change.

    "Unluckily, after five years I have not been able to change that thought process. Even today, when I am going to campaign in some place, the complaint I am getting is that when someone was arrested, you did not have them released."

    Politics as it is practiced in Pakistan, she explains, is not about putting systems into place.

    "In politics here, you have to give [your people] relief in their difficulties, and that's how you 'buy' them. Even when they are wrong, you support them."

    Of blocks and biraderi

    Ahsan Iqbal, a three-time member of parliament from the PML-N, is what is referred to in Pakistan as an "electable".

    Ahsan Iqbal's home is within his campaign headquarters
    in Narowal [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    The central leader of the PML-N has won his seat three times in the town of Narowal, located about 50km east of Sialkot, here on the country's eastern edge, and also served as federal education minister during one stint in the national assembly.

    Iqbal won his largely rural constituency, NA-117, by more than 20,000 votes last time out, and expects much the same result this year.

    "There is a mix of three factors when you run for the national assembly in Pakistan," he told Al Jazeera while campaigning in the town. "The first is national politics - that is, the party's vote bank. The second is the candidate's own vote bank [through their work and reputation].

    "And the third is the alignment of local power groups."

    It is that last, perhaps, that is most significant when it comes to rural politics in Pakistan, and helps to explain how Iqbal and legislators like him are able to come to power repeatedly, with consistently strong showings in elections.

    Rural voters, explained one election campaigner for the PML-N who spoke on condition of anonymity, realise that when it comes to elections, they only have one thing to bargain with: their votes. While those votes may not be worth much on their own, if the residents of a village pool all of their votes together to form a block of perhaps three or four hundred, they suddenly have a bargaining chip.

    "The system is such that an individual on his own will have a hard time surviving," the campaigner said. "So it makes sense for their survival for them to form a block."

    That block, researchers and campaigners say, can then be traded in for promises from election candidates to attend to needs such as water connections, sanitation installation or maintenance, roads or education. It also, the PML-N campaigner said, gives the block a form of access to the local member of parliament, in case they need his or her intercession in a dispute.

    Typically, a rural block will be formed around the village unit, with a local influential or landowner acting as the village's agent in negotiating the "price" of the votes - either in promises or, sometimes, in outright cash.

    In urban areas, those blocks can be more amorphous, researchers say, and will tend to form around organisations such as traders' associations. Moreover, in both rural and urban contexts, the overarching concern of biraderi [kinship networks] - and how they also offer some form of access to candidates after the election - also plays a role.

    Nevertheless, Iqbal - whose electoral machinery in Narowal has been in place for more than 20 years and is heavily dependent on the reputation it has built with these block voters - agrees that, at the end of the day, his campaign for high office in Islamabad is still dependent on what he achieves for this sleepy rural Punjabi town.

    "Local issues and local networks matter," he told Al Jazeera. "And even the youth in rural areas tends to follow traditional [power] structures."

    This year, Iqbal's opponent is not just any local personality, though: he's a national celebrity.

    Abrar-ul-Haq, a popular Punjabi pop singer, who is also from Narowal, has decided to challenge Iqbal's hold on the electoral district, taking a ticket from Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) to run on a platform of "changing Pakistan's system".

    Abrar-ul-Haq, a popular Punjabi singer, is challenging for
    a national assembly seat [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

    Haq has been involved in social activism for several years, having established the Sahara For Life Trust - which operates a hospital in Narowal - and the Pakistan Youth Parliament.

    A short man, who speaks with the open smile of one who is accustomed to public life, Haq says he's running for office because he's found that, in his work with youth from all over the country, "there is one common thing: unemployment and frustration".

    He does realise, however, that it's one thing to want to bring "change", and quite another to win an election in rural Pakistan.

    "Locally, fighting an election is a different science and a different art. There is no doubt about it. You have to understand the local dynamics of an area," he told Al Jazeera.

    "If you are talking in terms of getting votes, the dynamics are different, and if you are talking in terms of overall winning the elections, there are other, dangerous aspects involved as well [such as the use of thugs by opposing parties]."

    Haq likens the idea of the block voting system to livestock trading.

    "My opponents have this strategy where they say you can either keep a thousand sheep - or you can keep one shepherd, who looks over those thousand sheep.

    "It's difficult to entertain a thousand sheep, but it's easy to entertain one shepherd."

    Nevertheless, Haq is confident that he will be able to mobilise enough new voters - a strategy that the PTI is counting on nationally - in order to upset existing voting dynamics and bring in a landslide victory. Meanwhile, in Sialkot, Awan says that she's found the system is, perhaps, more resilient than those out to change it.

    "[It] was my effort to change the system here - I think that since I have come into politics, five years later I have not changed the system, instead the system has started to change me, little-by-little," she laments. "I have been forced to think that those people who don't have their basic necessities - health, education - they want biraderi, they want the thana-kutchery system."

    For Awan, this election will be a litmus test for her brand of politics.

    "This election is going to determine the parameters of [political] change: those who think that the work we have done is for the better and is positive, they will appreciate the work and vote for me. If they think, no, I didn't look after them properly and did not mind the political dynamics of the area, then they won't vote for me.

    "And this will determine what Pakistan's politics will be like - if they choose the other way, then it means that anyone who tries to change the political system and goes against traditional power structures cannot survive here."

    Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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