Landowner Power in Pakistan Election

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John Moore for TIME

Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, one of the largest landowners in Pakistan and head of the Bhutto tribe, poses in front of portraits of his forefathers at his estate in Mirpur Bhutto, Pakistan.

Bahg Chand has a problem. The jeweler's son was robbed on the streets of his dusty village near Mirpur Bhutto, in Pakistan's Sindh province. The thieves took $100 and a mobile phone. But when Chand went to the police, they told him they had to let the thieves go for lack of evidence, despite the fact there had been witnesses. So Chand took his case to a higher authority: Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, the local landlord.

In the feudal landscape of rural Pakistan, that makes Bhutto a most powerful man. Bhutto had his secretary make a call to the district police chief. "We will tell the police to get those men back. If they have a reason for letting them go — maybe they got the wrong guys — we will pressure them to find the real thieves," said Bhutto. He suspects, however, that the thieves paid the police off. That too can be remedied with a phone call. "But without me, this man would have no recourse."

The last thing Bhutto wants to be doing on this chilly Sunday is administering to the needs of the men who live on his lands. He's got a cold, and the morning's boar hunt was a bust. All he wants to do is relax in his hunting lodge, where the trophies of earlier, more successful hunts stud the walls. But the people keep coming, asking for loans, jobs for their nephews, and help playing interference for the police. "Believe me, if I could give this up, I would. It's a 24-hour job. I'd rather be hunting, or checking my crops. "

As one of Pakistan's largest landowners, Bhutto is both a victim and a perpetrator of the corrosive feudal system that has shaped Pakistani society for most of its 60-year history, and still dictates how politics are done today. Bhutto's family has owned this patch of fertile land alongside the Indus River for nearly half a millennium, and on the wall of his stately home is the family tree to prove it. (He is a cousin of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto.) Sharecroppers till the lands, exchanging half they produce — rice, wheat and sugarcane — for a place to live, seeds and fertilizer. And patronage. "If my tenants are happy with me, they work more efficiently on the lands," says Bhutto. "You help the people and they will help you." That exchange extends into the political realm. Bhutto isn't running in this year's parliamentary elections — he's retired — but his son is. With some 10,000 acres of land being cultivated by a vast network of thousands of sharecroppers dependent on feudal largesse, the Bhutto family can count on a large turnout of supporters at the polls.

Bhutto says his tenants are free to vote for whomever they please — in fact he complains that despite all he has done for them some are still disloyal. But sharecroppers on other feudal properties speak of coercion. Ghulam Abbas, an unemployed villager in rural Dosera, Punjab province, describes a climate of fear on election day. "The feudals have their own cronies on every street. They know who is favoring whom. If they lose in any polling station they can figure out through this system and take revenge." Revenge can come in the form of false police cases, he says, or unfair prices at the mills, which are owned by the feudal lords. Bhutto agrees that these practices have happened, and do happen, but, he's quick to add, not on his lands. "We don't need to do that here, people vote for us already."

With increased migration to the cities, a rise in party identification and better knowledge of democratic rights, direct feudal influence over voting is on the wane. Pollster Ijaz Shafi Gilani, of Gallup International Pakistan, estimates that feudal landlords will dominate only 20% of the vote this year. Abida Hussain, who is campaigning on the Pakistan People's Party in Jang, Punjab province, bristles at the word "feudal," even though she comes from a long landowning line that came to political power before the formation of Pakistan. "I'm not saying it didn't exist — it did, but it's dying out. The balance of power has shifted from landowners to the moneymakers." The term feudal means one small group exercising power over a larger one, she says. "I think the only feudals in Pakistan today are the Army Corps Commanders."

Landowners tend to romanticize the feudal life, describing a connection to the earth, and a loving relationship with tenants. Their long history sets them apart socially and, in Pakistan, they are the elites of the elite. Most of the major names in Pakistani politics today are grounded in vast landholdings. Benazir Bhutto was about to run from her historic holdings in nearby Naudero before she was killed on December 27th. But few feudal landowners will admit that their benevolent patronage also means no choices for their subjects. "Political leaders, most of them feudal, have nothing to offer to poor people. We are like their slaves and we have spent our entire life following the feudal system," said Daim Kandhrani, a 55-year-old villager from Ghotki.

But others see the feudal system as a necessary form of protection from the failures of the state. Pakistan's labyrinthine bureaucracy requires contacts and pulling strings to get anything done. Landlords, with their wealth and stature, can easily cut through red tape that would otherwise prevent a villager from getting a phone line, or a murder case through the courts. "In case there is a dispute over something then it is the feudal who comes to our help, not the police," says Bhural Khan, 51, also from Ghotki. "The courts and police are far behind our reach and take time for judgment and settlements, but in this [feudal] system one does not have to wait long for immediate justice."

Bhutto says he would be happy to see the feudal system of patronage end — if the state stepped in and took its place. "The government should do its job. In every other country government institutions are accessible and functioning. Why do I have to intervene when the police are corrupt? If the courts functioned, I wouldn't have to arbitrate. I only do this because nobody else is. Otherwise I would be vacationing in Majorca." With reporting by Shahzad Shah Jillani/ Ghotki