Pakistani elections are flawed, but poor rural voters are taking control

Power to the people. Benny Lin via Flickr, CC BY-NC

Despite being dogged by allegations of electoral engineering and vote-rigging, this year’s hotly contested general election in Pakistan should be – cautiously – celebrated. As a new government is sworn in, the country is marking a milestone in its tumultuous political history: the first time three democratic elections held in a row at regular intervals.

This is a big step forward – and for some Pakistanis more than others. Repeated competitive elections are a very good thing for all of Pakistan’s voters, but above all, they are good news for poorer rural voters. And, if the country’s political parties want to sustain what is still a fragile and teetering democracy, they need to start building a support base among these people.

The Pakistani electorate is widely thought of as deeply polarised, having dug in its heels behind one or the other of the largest competing parties. But this is a largely urban phenomenon. Most of Pakistan’s voters – about 65% – live in rural areas and are far less inclined to identify with political parties than their urban counterparts. This doesn’t mean they don’t care about politics – they turn up in sizeable numbers to vote during elections (in recent local government elections, they even exceeded those in urban areas). So, without a strong identification with political parties and their agendas, why do they vote in such reliable numbers?

With very little research available to explain this, it’s not surprising that all kinds of stereotypes abound. Two ideas in particular have become entrenched: on the one hand, that rural voters are effectively electoral cannon fodder – unthinking, uneducated, ignorant and coerced by enduring feudal lords – and on the other, that they simply sell their votes to the highest bidder.

The truth is rather more complicated. While there are indeed some voters who are coerced or others who will happily sell their vote, my research shows that a majority of rural voters know the value of their vote and wield it quite strategically in an increasingly competitive environment.

Keep them guessing

In my forthcoming book, Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters: Democracy Under Inequality in Rural Pakistan, I looked in detail at the politics of 35 villages in Punjab, the political heartland of the country, and found that these sorts of explanations don’t capture social and agrarian changes in Pakistan’s rural areas.

Local landlords, who often play a role as local power-brokers, can no longer wait at home for supplicants to come to them. Instead, they’re obliged to regularly canvass voters on the doorstep. On top of this, they’re faced with ever more demands from myriad groups of voters, very few of which relate to money: requests for greater action against absent teachers and doctors, for a veterinary hospital, for road repairs and, most often, for street paving and drainage systems. The landlords then put these demands to national and provincial politicians. Some are met, others not – and should they fail, the local landlords could lose votes in future elections.

One local landlord, worried about losing votes, explained to me that “it is important to think about what is good for the constituency, and to focus on who can provide it. This is the primary basis upon which political support is decided.” To cobble together this support, local landlords have had to change how they interact with poorer voters.

In some villages, emerging political leaders from poorer groups are demanding a seat at the negotiating table whenever politicians come through on the campaign trail. They believe – rightly – that they are better able to represent their own needs than their wealthier village leaders. A common strategy is for voters to put pressure on competing landlords aligned with different parties, and to keep them guessing about whom the voters support until the bitter end.

Armed with this strategy, rural voters can milk elections for all they’re worth. And that goes some way towards explaining why so many of Pakistan’s voters describe themselves as “undecided” in pre-election polling.

Bottom-up power

Some local landlords seem to be getting the hang of this. One political organiser who represented the poorest groups in his village told me that landlords had now learned to “speak our language”. Another suggested that democracy had made landlords humbler in their interactions with voters. Under these circumstances, politics is a matter of negotiation rather than coercion or ideology.

So far, no single political party has locked these votes up. What matters to rural voters isn’t the political party their elected representatives belong to, but whether their representatives are close to power and are able to provide goods and services.

This pattern of voting has two major implications. First, it means the collective interests of the rural poor are not projected upwards in national politics. While negotiations between voters and local leaders – and between these leaders and politicians – meet voter demands on an ad hoc basis, voter interests never become the subject of public policy that can respond to their needs as a whole. Second, this bottom-up model forces Pakistan’s political parties to compete by attracting “electable” politicians – endlessly manipulable and malleable by non-elected institutions – who come together not to strengthen their parties, but to win elections.

For parties to be able to survive such pressures, and to be able to sustain democracy in the process, they must organise and build core support bases of their own amongst rural voters, represent their interests when in power, and effectively provide public services in order to further reduce the relevance of local notables.

Pakistan’s teetering democracy is far from ideal, and the 2018 election may well have raised more questions than it has settled. But regular competitive elections mean that poorer voters’ votes and voices matter to elites – a situation that has few parallels within Pakistan’s extremely unequal socio-economic order.

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