Popular perception about Pakistan is that people vote based on biraderi ties or their votes are bought. Such an explanation overly simplifies the complexity of our election and paints the general voter as an unthinking zombie that does not deserve democratic choice.

Surveys and reports since the 1990s suggest that people have more agency than to simply vote for who they are being told to vote for. Yes, biraderi and patronage are important determinants but there is increasing evidence that people vote for politicians that they perceive are able to deliver on election promises, as well as voting out of a concern for national issues like unemployment, India, Kashmir, and energy crises.

The most in-depth research on voting patterns in Punjab comes from a wonderful book by Andrew Wilder from 1999. Wilder claims that in urban areas, party identification since the late 80s had been the major determinant of voting behaviour. In rural Punjab however, voting patterns were much more complex. Social ties of family and kinship played a role but the primary motivation was the voter’s concern over local issues like assistance in thana-kucheri affairs and needs for roads and schools.

Such trends of voting are important to understand as it has long been assumed the rural poor vote the wrong way. My argument here is that regardless of literacy rates, these people vote from the same motivations any urban, upper or middle class Pakistan would. Even back in 1999, Wilder writes that a growing number of votes were cast for candidates with strong records of addressing local concerns of service delivery.

The key to voting patterns is not biraderi or religion, it is patronage. Patronage has come to be seen as a dirty word, but in a country with law and order problems, patronage has come to mean service delivery and access to resources for many who do not have access to welfare from the state. Of course, patronage is a problem, but it also fills a vacuum where the state has not been able to provide equity and justice for people. This is what our current party system is built on. Rural voters are voting for patrons who must belong to a party in order to be effective… thus the scramble for party tickets by the PTI and PPP. The politicians want to be in the party that can best assure they can give patronage to their clients- for better or worse. At the face of this it may appear that people vote for local tribal leaders, but it is likely that that candidate has political influence and patronage networks in place. Even in the 1990s patronage and development were important determinants of voting, and that is how the PML-N got its vote bank and a pro-development mandate.

It is not a new trend that people are voting for parties, or politicians they recognise belong to a certain party, rather than on kinship. And even when it comes to patronage being an explainer of voting, voters have surprised us. In the 1970’s the PPP was the first party to be able to convince an almost national population to vote based on ideology rather than biraderi or patronage. This was a democratic victory but the trend was never consolidated- not by the PPP after 1970 and not by those who followed. This nascent pattern of voting was especially weakened under General Zia ul Haq who banned the PPP and arrested its politicians, ushering in eras of a localisation of politics. Now votes had to be cast not based on the promises of a party, but the promises of an individual. Local politicians couldn’t cite ideology and national development, because a national or provincial party network did not exist for them anymore to draw from. They promised services in public, and patronage in private.

This worked out well for the military regime who created a new cadre of loyal politicians to legitimise Zia’s government. Zia created patronage as the machine that made the state run (and still does). By the late 1980s the PPP was playing by the same rules Zia’s “local” politicians were. Zia’s legacy was not just Islamisation but the democratisation of patronage politics. We have politicians obsessed with developmental agendas today like the PML-N not because of an underlying ideology about markets or political systems, but because development projects like “yellow cabs” and highways and Metros are ways to exhibit their chops for service delivery. Sometimes its truly is a service, but mostly these are schemes to get more votes and to promise funds, jobs and kickbacks to party members and clients. One MNA from Punjab in the 1990s is quoted to have said: “My skill is that laws don’t mean anything to me, and that I can cut right across them and help people whether that are in the right or in the wrong”.

A consequence has been low attendance in parliament. Politicians are busy spending time and money in their constituencies rather than in parliament legislating. For the likes of Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif, it is just not worth their time to sit in parliament. They didn’t get their seat because they had great ideas for improving Pakistani laws. And so voters exercise their agency to sell heir vote, because their vote doesn’t mean better laws and policies, it means potential for a service from a politician (legal or illegal). Voters since the 1980s have not been socialised into voting for actual policies. They expect that on Election Day they will get food and transport for going to the polls.

Yet they are not inert sheep being herded by powerful politicians. They do this because this is the best deal for them and will continue to do so until a party with an ideologically strong mandate can shake them from this pattern, like the PPP did in the 1970s. Arguably the PTI tried this in the last election and failed and thus is now playing by the rules of patronage politics taught to us by Zia.

Even with the PTI as a new national party there will be continuity in the way people vote and PTI fits into that continuity with the way it is courting “electables”. None of the way these elections campaigns are running is about creating a new and better Pakistan. The name of the game has been patronage since Zia, and its not changing in this election.

However, there is also potential that voters could go against predictions. General Ayub Khan’s local democracies system that also encouraged local level patronage networks was dismantled within months. Since the 1990s, especially in urban wards of Punjab, people were voting based on ideology and still do. Often it is an ideology we may not agree with. For example, upper class women in Punjab voted for the PML-N in the 1990s because Benazir Bhutto didn’t sit well with their conservative views. Or, for example, people in industrial labour in the 1990s were voting for the PPP. Or how urban students today are tilted towards the PTI. Such patterns are not about quid-pro-quo relationships that characterise patronage. They can be seen as victories for democratic choice in Pakistan that need to become more pervasive to cut across patronage into actual service delivery through actual legislation.


writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.