Editor’s Note: Al Jazeera visited the Bhutto stronghold of Larkana in May 2017 to report on the political fortunes of the Pakistan People’s Party, 10 years after the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto.
Larkana, Pakistan – A drive to the centre of this city in southern Pakistan’s Sindh province is an arduous task – its crowded streets, dug up roads, overflowing sewers and traffic jams offer a picture of neglect.
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This is Larkana – home to Pakistan’s most famous political dynasty, the Bhuttos.
The city, inhabited by just over a quarter of a million people, is the birthplace of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the former prime minister and founder of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), currently the country’s main opposition party.
And despite the general lack of development, Larkana remains a stronghold of the PPP, which has won every election it has contested here. The daughter of the PPP’s founder, Benazir Bhutto, who was twice prime minister – from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996 – represented the constituency.
The three-domed white marble mausoleum that is the final resting place of Benazir, who was killed in a suicide attack in 2007, and Zulfiqar, who was sent to the gallows in 1979 by the then military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq, in Larkana’s Garhi Khuda Bakhsh – the ancestral village of the Bhutto family – has near-sacred status for the PPP and its supporters, drawing visitors from as far afield as northern Punjab state, nearly 800km away.
But locals complain about a lack of economic activity and high unemployment. Some parents say they can’t afford to send their children to school.
‘The Bhuttos have done nothing for us’
“I’m from Bhutto’s village, but the Bhuttos have done nothing for us,” says Sabir Hussain Bhutto, who runs a fruit stall on a narrow unpaved street with open drains in Larkana city.
“There is nothing left here for the poor. We have no jobs, my kids can’t get [a] decent education and we don’t have any money. The politicians are all full of fake promises year in year out,” he adds.
A shortage of electricity and gas – although common across Pakistan – is particularly acute here.
Sabir pauses to try to control his emotions as he reels off a litany of issues he and others face here on a daily basis.
“We don’t even have basic facilities like electricity and gas. We have to burn wood to stay warm. Imagine that, in 2017, we’re burning wood for our needs in Bhutto’s city,” he says as tears roll down his cheeks.
Such stories of economic hardship and a general sense of resignation are common across Sindh province, where dilapidated infrastructure and a near absence of adequate medical facilities is a hard reality.
In February, when a suicide attack killed at least 88 people at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, about 150km away from Larkana, that absence of adequate medical assistance was deeply felt.
The PPP, which runs the regional government in Sindh province, has been criticised not just for the lack of security but for failing to provide basic health and education infrastructure.
In a yearly review of the state of education carried out by Alif Ailann, a private NGO working in the education sector, Sindh ranked sixth out of the eight provinces and regions in Pakistan.
Only 23 percent of schools in the province, according to the same review, offer basic facilities like electricity, water, toilets and boundary walls. No latest government figures are available on the educational status of the province.
To address the state’s educational backwardness, in 2003 the regional Sindh government began distributing free textbooks to pupils in primary schools. Two years later, this was expanded to include those classes up to tenth grade, where pupils are aged 15 or 16.
Benazir helped establish a medical university here, while another university was planned near Mohenjodaro, about 30km south of Larkana, but locals say construction has been stalled.
Still voting for Benazir
Ayaz Soomro from the PPP represents one of the four National Assembly seats in Larkana, but Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, the heir to the Bhutto political dynasty, has said that he will contest future elections there. In a constituency that has traditionally been seen as the PPP’s fortress, there was a mixed reaction to the news.
“The people of Larkana are very emotional. They adored Benazir,” explains Jameel Gaad, an activist closely associated with the Sindhi nationalist JSQM party.
“Asif Zardari [Benazir’s husband and a former president of Pakistan] played with the people’s [emotions] and exploited Benazir’s assassination for votes. Now, they’ve ruined Sindh,” he says.
“I don’t think he [Bilawal] will lose. People here still respect Benazir and will vote for the PPP because of her and nothing else. But mark my words, he will get stiff competition and it won’t be easy for him.”
Many PPP supporters say they will “vote for Benazir” – who is still highly popular in this southern city, nearly 500km north of the port city of Karachi.
But while Benazir has a loyal following here, residents of some remote areas say they do not know the names of her son or husband. Still, they add, the PPP will get their vote.
PPP leaders have downplayed the issues affecting the region.
“Improvement is needed in every major city when it develops and Larkana is no different, it has problems related to urbanisation,” says Nisar Khuhro, the president of the PPP in Sindh province. “I don’t deny that. But it will take time. Things do need repairs and work is being carried out.
“But I do believe we have the support of the people of Larkana and if someone tells you otherwise, you’re talking to the wrong people,” Khuhro, who is from Larkana, adds.
‘Think carefully before casting their vote’
Javed, a native of Larkana city, stands at the entrance to a street, pointing at the dug-up roads and overflowing sewage that have left no place for pedestrians to walk.
“This is the area that Bilawal calls his own,” he says.
“He lives in Dubai, he went to an expensive university [the University of Oxford in the UK] and seldom visits the places and people who vote for him. How can you call yourself a leader when kids fall into these open gutters and die?” Javed asks.
“Corruption is at its peak. Nobody cares about the poor. Those people we elect drive past us in air-conditioned cars. While we don’t even have enough money to raise the entrance to our houses to stop sewage water from coming in.”
The regional government has been accused of corruption. Following a petition by a local resident, Sindh High Court has sought details of a development budget of $1.1bn allocated for Larkana.
JSQM’s Jameel believes a lack of political alternatives is one of the reasons for the lack of development.
“But now people have options, they are more aware of their rights and what’s expected,” he says.
“A good number will now think carefully before they cast their vote.”
But according to the PPP’s Khuhro, the situation in Larkana is not unusual and is “part and parcel of a city undergoing expansion and development”.
“The development is never complete, even in cities like London and New York. Business has grown in Larkana and the city is developing,” he says, without addressing the issues of unemployment and the state of education in the region.
Sabir Hussain Bhutto says he has made up his mind about who he’ll vote for in the next general election, scheduled to be held in 2018.
“It’s a circus, nothing else. PPP has looted us, it has ruined our future,” he says forcefully, adding that his vote will not be going to the PPP.