Multan: In Multan, a self-described city of saints in central Pakistan, one holy politician is banking on more than prayers to ensure victory in Saturday's national elections.
Yousuf Raza Gilani, a former prime minister, built his political popularity on his status as a makhdoom, the guardian of one of Multan's many ornate, centuries-old Sufi shrines. But in this contest, Gilani is counting on something more temporal to tempt voters: the city's impressive array of new highway overpasses, bridges and sewerage networks, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that he built during his time in office.
"People want to see what we have done for them," said Gilani, who is campaigning on behalf of his three sons and brother, who are candidates for Parliament, as he steered his sport utility vehicle through a crowd of supporters. "They want deeds, not intentions."
Patronage has long been the bedrock of politics in Pakistan, where votes are dictated less by the strategic issues that concern Western allies - combating the Taliban, rescuing an ailing economy or shaping policy toward Afghanistan - and more by immediate concerns about legal protection and government handouts.
Voters, particularly in rural areas, view their representatives in Parliament principally as big bosses who can deliver protection: influencing the police and dealing with aggressive, corrupt land officials, or working to route jobs or multimillion-dollar projects to their districts. Gilani's Pakistan People's Party, which led the last government, is counting heavily on that record to shore up its crumbling popularity.
Even so, traditional power brokers like Gilani - and, more broadly, the patronage system - face a potent challenge from the emerging third force in politics here: former sports star Imran Khan, whose political pull seems only to have increased after he was hospitalized Tuesday because of a fall that left him with back fractures, deep cuts and widespread sympathy.
On the national stage, Khan's rise is changing the immediate political equation for old-school power brokers. But at the local level in Pakistan, within individual constituencies, true change can be hard to deliver.
Gilani, 60, is an archetypal patronage politician. He had a mixed record during his four-year stint as prime minister, which ended in June, overseeing a sharp economic decline and chronic electricity shortages. Even so, Gilani told a Pakistani journalist recently, while in office he devoted at least an hour a day to the affairs of his constituents.
As a result, Multan has been transformed, residents say. The city is ribboned with new roads and expressways, while a modern airport, capable of accommodating wide-body jets, is near completion. The railway station has been overhauled, some neighbourhoods have new sewerage, and young students have been awarded generous scholarships.
A giant billboard outside Gilani's house lists his achievements: 34 major development projects, costing more than $280 million, all financed by Pakistani taxpayers.
"Multan has become like Paris for us," said Muhammad Bilal, a 28-year-old labourer and enthusiastic Gilani supporter, at a rally last week.
As Gilani bumped down a country lane on the way to that rally, he pointed to a line of female faces peeking over a wall: all beneficiaries of a government aid plan he helped establish that pays $10 a month to poor women, he said.
"This is a backward area," said the former prime minister, a soft-spoken and amiable man, just before supporters showered him with rose petals. "People have issues regarding their personal needs."
To critics like Khan, this extreme version of pork-barrel politics represents the rot in government: the cornerstone of an unfair system riddled with graft and nepotism. But political scientists say it might be unavoidable in a country with limited resources and a weak government.
"The debate is misplaced," said Asad Sayeed of the Collective for Social Science Research, in Karachi. "To do away with the demand for patronage politics, you would need to rebuild the entire state."
In a country where politicians have competed with generals for power, patronage is also a prominent tool of civilian influence. While the military enjoys a largely unscrutinized budget, politicians depend on public resources to build legitimacy.
Gilani, for example, was in jail from 2001 to 2006 during the rule of Gen. Pervez Musharraf on a charge of arranging 600 government jobs for his constituents during a previous administration in the 1990s.
"If giving jobs is a crime, then I am a criminal," he told voters at one rally, to loud cheers.
In fact, the practice is institutionalized: The government gives each Parliament member, no matter the party, about $200,000 a year to spend on "development" - effectively, a patronage slush fund.
But few doubt that patronage is inefficient and unfair. Even though flashy infrastructure projects might create jobs, such projects are often accompanied by the mysterious enrichment of the politicians doling out the money.
In Multan, many voters have noted how wealthy the Gilani family has grown in recent years, and the press has reported on the shopping expeditions of Gilani's wife in London. His son, Ali Musa Gilani, who is running in these elections, is facing accusations that he was involved in the illegal import of a product used to make the drug crystal methamphetamine.
In the election, Gilani's son is competing with Shah Mehmood Qureshi from Khan's party. Qureshi is not an obvious torchbearer for revolutionary change: He is also the makhdoom of a prominent shrine and a large landowner to boot.
Qureshi was foreign minister in the last government and in no way renounced patronage. While he was in office, the government financed a lavish refurbishment of his family's glittering shrine in central Multan.
Still, like many candidates in Khan's party, he might benefit from the shifting national mood.
"I'm looking at Imran," said Makhdoom Rashid, a municipal gardener, standing outside the bejewelled Qureshi shrine in central Multan. "The others just tell lies. We want to try a new party."
Despite Khan's talk of change, there is little doubt that patronage will continue in Pakistan. The front-runner party in this election is led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has also indulged his supporters through his influence with the Punjab provincial government.
It remains to be seen whether Khan, in government or in the opposition, will be able to nudge the system toward reform while maintaining public support.
Ghulam Nabi, a young tailor, lingered at the gates of the Qureshi shrine in Multan after saying his daily prayers.
"I'm not hopeful for any of these politicians, Imran included," he said, visibly disgruntled. "No matter what they say now, in the end they will bring us nothing."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service