Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters: Democracy Under Inequality in Rural Pakistan: Cambridge University Press (2019)

Published on 7 October 2019

Are poor voters condemned to be electoral cannon fodder and politically marginalised in contexts of extreme inequality? Much of the literature on democracy in lower-income countries says yes, but Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters argues that even under the harshest political conditions, in this case in Pakistan’s volatile and often violent democracy, there are savvy voters among the poor, negotiating their way through structural inequality and forcing entrenched oligarchies to resort to all of their skills to maintain the terms of political engagement.

These arguments contribute to the limited literature on why marginalised citizens vote as they do, or why they vote at all, when their political agency is severely limited by high socio-economic inequality. Rural voters turn up in large numbers to vote in Pakistan’s elections, and engage in a range of often contradictory relations with powerful landed elites. The study uses original data collected over many years of fieldwork from across a wide range of villages and households to look at the tension that exists at the local level between socio-economic change and institutional preconditions, manifested as village level politics.

At one level it seems that democracy can empower marginalised voters through inclusion even in highly unequal settings. But the stories presented here reveal varying levels of autonomy that marginalised voters have in making political decisions. Using a controlled comparison and a mix of methods, this study finds that the substantive practice of democracy varies from village to village depending on levels of structural inequality – where inequality has historically been high, poor voters have little political agency, but where inequality has historically been lower, democracy is stronger.

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Book reviews

Review by Jennifer Bussell (UC Berkeley)

“Political space in persistent social structures” SARG 2019

Review by Christophe Jaffrelot (King’s College London and Sciences Po)

“The village revisited” (2020) Contemporary South Asia book forum on Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters, Vol.28(2):

Review by Thibaud Marcesse (Boston College)

“Vote blocs and Clientelism” (2020) Contemporary South Asia book forum on Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters, Vol.28(2):

Review by Nicholas Martin (Universität Zürich)

Thana katcheri politics” (2020) Contemporary South Asia book forum on Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters, Vol.28(2):

Read response to CSA book forum here:

Crafty oligarchs, savvy voters

Review by Erum Haider (College of Wooster)

“Democracy under duress: patronage, class and the Pakistani voter” (2021) Commonwealth and Comparative Politics

Review by Foqia Sadiq Khan

“Rural voting deconstructed” The News, September 8th 2020

Review by Saif Asif Khan

“Ballot boxes without Biryani” Dawn, May 3rd 2020

Listen to podcasts on the book

Between the lines Podcast S03 Ep.04: Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters – Shandana Khan Mohmand in conversation with Adam Auerbach (American University)

Lekh Review – Conversation with Shandana Khan Mohmand 

Book talks

Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters has travelled extensively since its publication in 2019. There have been book talks at: King’s College London (Oct 2019); Yale University (Nov 2019); Brown University (Nov 2019); University of Pennsylvania (Nov 2019); Johns Hopkins University, SAIS (Nov 2019); Saint Joseph’s University (Nov 2019); Lahore University of Management Sciences (Jan 2020); Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (Jan 2021); University of California, Berkeley (Mar 2021).

Cite this publication

Khan Mohmand, S. (2019) Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters: Democracy Under Inequality in Rural Pakistan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Shandana Khan Mohmand

Cluster leader and Research Fellow

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