By Drazen Jorgic
MIANWALI QURESHIAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar, a Pakistani landowner and politician, recently switched to his third party in a decade. That is unlikely to prevent him retaining his seat in parliament this month, thanks to loyalty to a family name that has held sway over politics in this part of central Pakistan for generations.
"We've lived here for eight centuries," said Bakhtyar, who will contest the seat under the banner of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan's opposition party, after abandoning the outgoing ruling party of ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
"If you live in an area for that long, you tend to develop social and political capital," he told Reuters in an interview at his marble-floored mansion, nestled among the rolling mango plantations of Mianwali Qureshian, a village in southern Punjab.
Such outsize influence, enjoyed by dozens of aristocratic families in rural parts of Punjab province thanks to centuries of rigid social, tribal or religious tradition, is key to Khan's strategy for winning Pakistan's July 25 general election.
Entrenched local powerbrokers, who include feudal lords, tribal chiefs, clan elders and spiritual leaders and are known in Pakistan as "electables", hold about a quarter of Punjab's 141 elected parliamentary seats. Punjab, long the Sharif family's electoral power base, in turn accounts for more than half the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, making it the key election battleground.
Khan has previously said he believes that winning over the province's electables can weaken the Sharifs' grip on Punjab and open up a path to power for him.
So far at least 21 Punjab lawmakers from Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have defected to Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), or Movement for Justice party, suggesting the strategy is bearing fruit.
With polls also showing the PTI gaining ground, Khan is increasingly being tipped by analysts to be the next prime minister. But the embrace of "turncoat" politicians from traditional elites risks damaging his image as the candidate of change.
Khan wooed the electables bloc at the last election, but by his own admission they flirted with him before opting for Sharif's PML-N once it swept to power in 2013.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, deputy-chairman of PTI and an aristocratic Sufi elder, said the party has become "pragmatic" after the 2013 poll, in which it fielded ideological candidates who did not know the "art of contesting elections".
"We need numbers (in parliament)," Qureshi told Reuters when asked about the party's pursuit of electables. "Unless we have numbers, how do we implement the agenda for change?"
"AGAINST OUR PHILOSOPHY"
Khan, a former Pakistan cricket captain, founded PTI in 1996, but has only recently broken through as a credible contender for power.
Sharif, who has clashed with the military before he was ousted from power by the Supreme Court last year, alleges members of the military's intelligence agency have been leaning on his lawmakers to switch sides and usher Khan to power.
Several politicians from prominent south Punjab families have told Reuters that people they believed were intelligence agents have threatened them with corruption cases if they did not abandon PML-N.
Reuters could not independently corroborate the events they described and the military, which has ruled the country for about half its history, denies interfering in modern-day politics. Khan has dismissed suggestions he is colluding with the generals.
Critics scorn electables as opportunists who switch allegiance depending on which way the electoral winds are blowing, and accuse them of selling their loyalty to maintain access to resources.
"This happens in almost every election," said Suhail Warraich, editor of Urdu-language Daily Jang newspaper.
"But the tilt is more obvious (as it appears) PML-N will not be allowed to come to power and definitely PTI is the favourite of our establishment," he added, referring to elements of the military, judiciary and civil service.
An anti-corruption crusader, Khan spent years on the fringes deriding the influence of powerful dynastic families as a symptom of a dishonest and venal political system. Now he defends his alliance with the electables as necessary.
"I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe," Khan told the English-language Dawn newspaper last week. "You contest elections to win. You don't contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win."
But his embrace of such traditional powerbrokers has angered some among his party rank and file.
"Electables are totally against our philosophy. The party was established on the idea of meritocracy and justice. This will ruin it," said Asmat Malik, a PTI party worker protesting against electables outside Khan's home near Islamabad.
In Mianwali Qureshian, Bakhtyar's ancestral home in south Punjab, children trudge barefoot through the village, while residents bitterly complain about lack of clean drinking water.
Bakhtyar rose to prominence when he served in the cabinet of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who had ended Sharif's earlier stint in power in a coup. He joined Sharif's party when he returned to power in 2013.
Rattling off World Bank statistics about poverty in south Punjab, Bakhtyar said he has made it his life goal to curb inequality, advocating for higher taxes and a welfare state.
"Either you are symbol of regressive forces or you decide to lead the progressive forces," he said. "I have taken the decision for the latter for 21 years (in politics)."
Bakhtyar's only real threat at the ballot box is his cousin, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, another former cabinet minister and Pakistan People's Party (PPP) grandee who is also revered locally as a spiritual leader and custodian of a Sufi shrine.
A direct descendent of one of the missionaries who brought Islam to the region more than 700 years ago, Shahabuddin said his hereditary role still "still carries weight with voters".
Both men agree the political influence of families such as theirs is waning, a trend analysts attribute to rapid urbanization, improved education and the rise of social media, which is making people more informed.
But electables remain PTI's best bet to sweep south Punjab, Khan said recently.
Bakhtyar, who says he was not coerced and was never approached by the military's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, concedes his switch from PML-N to PTI was not based on ideology.
He led a bloc of lawmakers demanding Punjab, home to more than half of Pakistan's 208 million people, be split up and more money funnelled to the south, by far the poorest part of the country's richest province.
Khan agreed to hive off a new province and scooped up the support of Bakhtyar's bloc, he said.
"Since PTI is the new party on the horizon, from Khyber to Karachi, that was our best bet," Bakhtyar said.
(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore and Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi; Editing by Alex Richardson)