At the end of last year, during an overland journey through Pakistan, I walked through the Punjab, Pakistan's most fertile and populous province. Passing through a succession of sleepy farming villages, the impending elections seemed irrelevant. Today in these same villages, after the chaos following Benazir Bhutto's death, the election is apparent everywhere; not just in multicoloured posters but in heated debate, anger and despair. The government's popularity appears to have tumbled to an all-time low in the wake of President Musharraf's clumsy dismissal of the judiciary last November, suspicion over Bhutto's death, rising inflation, and accusations of electoral rigging.
But for many villagers in the Punjab, casting a vote has more to do with feudal allegiance than expressing a political opinion. Despite the fact that national polls suggest the two main opposition parties, the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) are set for a landslide victory, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) which was established to support Musharraf's regime, may hold enough feudal seats in the Punjab to prevent an outright opposition majority and force a coalition.
In the heart of the Punjab, feudal landowners are the also the political elite holding tenant-voters firmly in their grip. Half-hearted land reform in the 1950s failed to break their dominance. In the remote lush-green district of Patokki, 80 kilometres southwest of the provincial capital Lahore, I met a group of sharecroppers harvesting clover with sickles. They intend to vote for the local PML-Q candidate, who is also the biggest local landowner and their employer. "We're poor and he's rich, so of course we'll vote for him," they say with resignation. In the nearby village, posters of the candidate are plastered over every building. Everyone I meet voices unquestioning support for him. On the outskirts of the village, a group of gypsies sit in a scruffy tented camp surrounded by cows and donkeys. "We'll vote for the landlord," a man holding two small children tells me. "Otherwise we wouldn't be able to stay here." His family survives on about $20 (just over £10) a month earned by selling wooden toys. Like 30 per cent of Pakistan's population, they live in grinding poverty, malnourished and illiterate. Despite Pakistan's recent economic boom, the poor have lost out to spiralling inflation which has seen flour and sugar prices doubling over the past year, an appalling irony in Punjab's super-fertile lands.
So what does the ruling party stand for? In the town of Pattoki, the mayor, who is also a PML-Q party worker was full of hollow rhetoric; "Our number one priority is welfare of the poor ... after elections we'll have new schools and new teachers," he says. Unsurprisingly, he turns out to be a member of the local landowning family and a brother of the candidate. Surely this is feudalism? "No ... it's coincidence that landowners are politicians," he says breezily. "People love them and so they vote for them."
But is the main opposition, the PPP, any better? A minority party in the Punjab, it too relies on feudalism to pull in the votes. In Pattoki district, I came across a rare pocket of PPP supporters living in an area owned by a landlord from the PPP, who of course is the most popular local candidate. A sharecropper in a field hand-spreading fertilizer says his vote will go to this landlord, "because that's how we're all going to vote". A labourer cutting sugar cane in a nearby field earning just $40 a month tells me: "It's difficult to live, we exist hand-to-mouth, we can't save anything." But his expectations of change are high, as he quotes the PPP slogan: " 'Bread, Clothes and Houses' is what the People's Party stands for ... they support the poor people and prices of wheat, flour and oil are too high right now."
In the local PPP headquarters, I ask if such expectations can be met. "We'll empower the poor people," the candidate's brother tells me, repeating the same slogan. "Inflation is caused by the feudals," he continues, unconcerned by the fact that he's one of them. Indeed, the Bhuttos' power, and that of the PPP co-chairman, Benazir's widower Ali Zardari, who was previously jailed for corruption, springs from owning vast tracts of land in Sindh province. But the burning issue in this party headquarters is anger at Bhutto's death: "It wasn't the Taliban that killed Benazir, it was Musharraf. He murdered her... if he tries to steal the election the people will rise up."
Rigging is commonly regarded as inevitable and a violent backlash is possible. But in the Punjab, where half of Pakistan's 272 parliamentary seats will be contested, the feudals and the ruling PML-Q party may hold sway and force a coalition. The only certainty is that for villagers locked into appalling poverty and feudal obedience, without a change in their status, the result will make little difference.
Leo Docherty is the author of "Desert of Death: a Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan", published by Faber