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Alayna Ahmad-Benson Headshot

Politics in Pakistan -- Failed by the Feudal System

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The recent election in Pakistan was disappointing for former cricket legend Imran Khan, the charismatic candidate for hope and change. Winning around 35 out of 242 seats in Parliament, he came second in a large number of seats, but failed to overtake Nawaz Sharif's party machine. However, Khan will remain a vital force in Pakistani politics and could become the leader of the opposition if he is prepared to compromise to gain the second most coveted office in the National Assembly after the prime minister.

Imran Khan was never going to revolutionize Pakistani politics overnight. The country has been run by political dynasties and the military for far too long for change to come about easily or quickly. Khan's gains however, should be seen as a significant success and he is in a position now to be critic and watchdog of the ruling party and the continued voice for reason and change.

Voter turnout in the May election was 55.02 percent, the highest in Pakistani history. The reason why Khan failed to win this time is partly because of corruption and vote rigging but also because the old patronage networks that traditionally govern politics in Pakistan are incredibly difficult to reform. The country is predominantly made up of rural constituencies, where people vote according to what their local landlord tells them to do.

One such individual said it all: 'I like Imran Khan but in our culture we respect our elders and I can only support the candidate from our clan."

In spite of the explosive growth of industries in Pakistan's cities, agriculture is the mainstay of Pakistan economy, accounting for 25 percent of GDP, 60 percent of export earnings and 48% of employment. Land distribution in Pakistan is highly unequal as 5 percent of large landholders possess 64 percent of total farm land. It is this aspect of the feudal system that is holding back Pakistan's political and social development. Successive governments have promised land reforms, but the old inherited power structures of local aristocracies remain.

India abolished their large land ownership system in the 1950s and even though the conditions there are not perfect, one does not see there the feudal relationships as still practiced in the rural heart of Pakistan. And in Pakistan, the democratic process itself has enabled a transition of the feudal elite to a new political system -- almost all leading politicians have a land-owning background. When they come to power, they can further strengthen their position with lucrative agribusinesses that still rely on the labor of peasant farmers. Thus, while the economy becomes increasingly industrialized and global, its worker base is still trapped in a feudal system. As wealth continues to be concentrated at the top and the poor have little hope for upward mobility, comprehensive land reform could be a good start to change the course of Pakistani history.

But while millions of poor people depend on wealthy landowners for livelihoods and patronage, this is not unique in other countries where rich and politically influential families own large properties. It is the scale and the abuses in Pakistan that demand attention and change. Many feudal and tribal leaders thrive on corruption, demand impunity for their crimes and jealously guard their vested interests. They obstruct the implementation of necessary new policies, from agricultural taxation to land reform, education and women's rights.

Urbanization, education and the rule of law may eventually reduce rural populations and diminish the power of feudals in the countryside. However, their influence may simply be reasserted in urban settings through political dynasties unless there is gradual institutional reform and buy-in from the prominent and influential ruling classes themselves.

Hopefully, it will take just one more election cycle for the power of the old political dynasties and feudal landowners to be replaced by social justice and true democracy. And hopefully, Imran Khan has the patience to wait out another few years for his opportunity to lead his beleaguered country into a brighter future.