MORE than 40 years after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto electrified interior Sindh with his brand of politics, the PPP looks set to continue its domination of the region at the next election.

While the woes of incumbency and a non-Bhutto leadership appear to have dimmed enthusiasm for the PPP somewhat, the absence of a viable political alternative has once again left the party with a clear path to victory here.

“The only alternative to PPP is individuals, like the Mahars and Jatois. Given a choice between the PPP and independent waderas, sardars or pirs, the people prefer to vote PPP. At least that way they get something, a party that has a shot at power,” according to Zulfiqar Halepoto, president of the Sindh Democratic Forum, an independent political think tank.

For decades, the political dynamics of interior Sindh – essentially, Sindh minus Karachi and Hyderabad – have been fairly static: the PPP controls roughly two-thirds of the National Assembly seats available, while the remaining one-third is carved up among powerful landlords, tribal chiefs and spiritual leaders outside the PPP fold.

In 2008, fuelled by anger over the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the PPP won 28 of the 39 National Assembly constituencies in interior Sindh. In 2002, when Musharraf tried to suppress the PPP, the party still won 25 seats.

At the next election, the PPP is expected to retain its 2:1 advantage over the rest of the field. However, the party is expected to face a tougher time than in 2008, when even powerful candidates pitted against the PPP, like Liaquat Jatoi of Dadu district, were steamrolled in an election held just weeks after Ms Bhutto’s assassination.

“The PPP will get its votes, but the voter will give them a tough time. Candidates will be abused. Many will be told for the first time, we’re only voting because of the PPP, not for you,” said Nazir Leghari, editor of Daily Awam.

Rumblings of discontent On the 600-kilometre stretch of the N5 highway from outside Karachi to the northern reaches of Sindh, new Toyota and Suzuki cars frequently zip past lorries, playing a game of hide-and-seek with the highway police on the look-out for speeding violations. The slow-moving lorries are themselves often laden with yet more new vehicles.

Sections of the population are obviously doing well and the PPP leadership is quick to point out the benefits that have accrued to interior Sindh over the last four years: high crop prices; record sums of money and new powers via the NFC and the 18th Amendment, respectively; the brisk sale of cars, motorcycles and consumer goods; and massive amounts of aid and reconstruction after the floods and rains in successive years.

Others, however, point out that the benefits have far from been distributed equally, and it doesn’t take much to find signs of acute poverty in the province, like the legless and armless beggar in the middle of a broken stretch of road in Nawabshah.

Manzoor Solangi, a documentary filmmaker with Sindh TV who has travelled extensively through Sindh, said, “They’ve distributed tens of thousands of jobs but they’ve gone to relatives or favourites of candidates and allies. Inflation is up, governance is poor and corruption is rife. The average man can see all of this.”

Solangi argued that while previous PPP governments faced similar problems, there was a difference this time: “BB had charisma and she was the daughter of Sindh. So Sindh could forgive her. But the new leadership doesn’t have that connection to the people.”

With more than four years having passed since the death of Ms Bhutto, the lack of progress in identifying who was behind her assassination has also caused a few ripples of discontent, according to Manzoor Shaikh, host of a political talk show on KTN, a popular Sindhi-language channel. “The appeasement of MQM is also a sore point. Some ask what’s the difference between Musharraf and the PPP?” Shaikh added.

The floods of 2010 and rains of 2011, however, do not appear to be a major electoral issue. Abrar Kazi, president of the fledgling Awami Jamhoori Party, said, “There was no major famine or outbreak of disease that will count. Besides, people believe floods and rains on this scale are acts of nature and not really in the hands of politicians.”

Privately, the PPP leadership admits there are challenges ahead. One party insider speaking on the condition of anonymity claimed, “Not everyone has got a job or some benefit this time round obviously. We’ll have to put up with nakhras (complaints) at the next election.”

A new politics In Moro, Naushahro Feroze, a stronghold of Ghulam Murtaza Jatoi, head of the National People’s Party, a local landlord recounted with awe a rumour he had heard after a recent visit by President Zardari to a neighbouring district: “He distributed Rs10,000 to every adult in every household.”

Aware of the potential difficulties at election time and perhaps also of his limitations as a charismatic or popular politician, President Zardari is believed to be using money and patronage to consolidate the PPP’s base and buy off rivals wherever possible.

Party officials are reluctant to talk about the role of money in the next election. One senior party leader simply said, “When the electoral wave is not at your back, you need more of everything, including money.”

Others are more frank, however. “Zardari has given a free hand to the party machinery to make money. The electables have made so much money they will buy buses, not rent them, to bring voters to the polling station,” said Abrar Kazi.

A former Sindh government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, “This year the budget for rural development has been quadrupled to Rs4 billion. What is rural development? It can mean anything. More often than not, it’s just a bribe.”

The former official added: “President Zardari is all about knowing what you want. He’ll take you by the arm and ask, ‘What do you want?’ Roads, schemes, projects, if you’re an ally or he needs you, whatever you ask for, you get.”

The PPP is also credited with other politically savvy moves, particularly the introduction of the Benazir Income Support Programme. “In making women the beneficiaries, the PPP was particularly clever,” said Jami Chandio, a Sindhi writer and activist. “Women in these areas often didn’t have identity cards and couldn’t vote. But they need ID cards for BISP and Nadra has issued them in a big way. Sentimentally anyway attached to Benazir, these women will vote for her.”

The Bhutto factor In Matiari, in lower Sindh, a group of labourers at a roadside café had no doubts who they would vote for at the next election. “We vote for BB. She’s our princess,” they said in unison.

When asked why they vote for the PPP, a labourer who identified himself as Pyaaro said, “Roti, kapra aur makaan.” Pyaaro did not seem too concerned that the PPP had not delivered much of food, clothing or shelter to him or his companions.

At its core, the PPP phenomenon in Sindh remains about the Bhutto legacy. “Bhutto has seeped into the identity of Sindh, it’s become part of the soil and folklore,” according to Nazir Leghari, the newspaper editor. “Whoever controls the keys to Garhi Khuda Baksh, controls the politics of Sindh.”

“BB is such an iconic figure. I haven’t even been able to convince my mother that PPP is not good for Sindh,” Zulfiqar Halepoto said with a tinge of regret.

The Bhutto legacy and President Zardari’s skills in power and patronage politics, then, means that the best aspiring rivals to the PPP can hope for is to look to the future.

“The PPP will win next time, there’s no doubt. But if the Bhutto legacy fades and the poor governance record continues, the following election could see some cracks,” Abrar Kazi argued.

But, Kazi admitted, it all depended on the rise of alternatives. “The space exists to replace the PPP and these waderas and pirs but someone has to rise to the challenge if their hold is to be broken.”