Supporters prepare to distribute posters of provincial assembly candidate Iftikhar Ali Mashwani, who is making his first run for office. (Michele Langevine Leiby/For The Washington Post)

Winning a grass-roots political campaign in Pakistan or anywhere else depends on having committed, hardworking volunteers. Iftikhar Ali Mashwani, an aspiring provincial lawmaker, has come to realize that his supporters are neither.

“When I go into the villages and the fields, I should see my flags on the roadsides and rooftops. I should see my posters. And I don’t,” Mashwani, a 35-year-old furniture salesman, chided followers gathered in his small lumberyard in northwestern Pakistan. “This campaign is not up to the mark!”

Mashwani, running on the Movement for Justice ticket headed by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, is learning tough lessons as he scrabbles for votes against well-established foes in this largely rural area. On May 11, Pakistanis will choose the next prime minister in an election hailed as a landmark of democratic progress for a country ruled by the military for nearly half its 65-year history. Yet decades of tradition dictate why democracy has remained more of a concept than a reality.

Even as Pakistan prepares to witness its first democratic transition of power, elite political families, powerful landholders and pervasive patronage and corruption undermine the prospects of a truly representational democracy, political analysts say. The dominant Pakistan People’s Party and its rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, have the money, experience and connections that Mashwani does not as a novice contender from an upstart party.

As in the United States, Pakistan has what amounts to an entrenched two-party system, but even less space exists here for reformers and newcomers from lower classes. For decades, critics say, the parties have been run like insular family businesses whose only goal is to perpetuate their power and plunder national resources.

The Pakistani military, by contrast, is well respected by the public and not afraid to muscle into politics. It has overthrown weak governments three times with general public support. During periods of civilian rule, the army also wields great influence behind the scenes, adding to evidence that Pakistan has never been more than a Potemkin democracy.

Over the years, U.S. officials have seen only diminishing returns in their democracy-promoting efforts. The upcoming election, while historic, will not necessarily solve anything. Pakistan remains under siege by insurgents and shot through with corruption — and it is still a beggar nation seemingly always on the brink of collapse.

Most analysts predict the election will result in a fractured Parliament dominated by a coalition of old-guard politicians, with Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N and a two-time prime minister, likely to reclaim the job 14 years after he was ousted in a coup.

“I see elections not bringing change,” said Shamshad Ahmad, a former Pakistani foreign secretary under Sharif. “Without a change in the system there will be the same feudalized, elitist hierarchy that remains in power.

“Let’s hope a new culture is being born that civilians must take responsibility and take the reins in their hands,” said Ahmad, who remains a Sharif backer. “When our rulers show their ability to take good decisions, the army will stay in its space.”

New faces

The chance of new rulers being minted appears greater in this election. Voters across Pakistan say they have given up hope of improving their lot with retread politicians. So they are turning to untested candidates such as Mashwani.

“Democracy in Pakistan only works for the powerful,” said Sher Shah, 37, a farmer active in Mashwani’s campaign. Then he quoted Abraham Lincoln: “Democracy should be of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Mashwani said such sentiments spurred him into the race, and his politics are decidedly local. Asked about his top issues, Mashwani does not mention Khan’s hard line against U.S. drone attacks or support for negotiations with the Taliban. Instead, he talks about better public schools and about giving local officials more say over what roads to pave or sanitation lines to install.

Mashwani is among some 1,400 candidates vying for 99 seats in the provincial assembly — the rough equivalent of a state legislature — in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan’s volatile northwest.

But he faces stark realities. He has no base and no record to run on. His volunteers are small traders, farmers and teachers of meager means. And Mashwani said he has no money to pay hired hands to get out the vote, as other politicians do.

Many who back Mashwani, while full of idealism, say knocking on doors, putting up posters and other electioneering requires too much sacrifice — they cannot afford to lose any working hours.

But the candidate is impatient.

“We have little time left,” Mashwani warned in his speech last week to more than 100 backers and party workers. “We are facing traditional candidates and experts with vast experience in elections. So be alert, be quick.”

Some of the volunteers looked just the opposite, somnambulant in the afternoon sun after hearing several speakers extol the candidate and the party. Then a man shouted “Long live Mashwani!” and stirred the crowd to scattered applause.

The ‘electables’ — and the rest

Mashwani has an inviting face, a quiet magnetism and a great deal of optimism. Like Khan, he seems to appeal in particular to young people, who proudly sport the party’s Obamaesque “Hope” buttons and cricket-bat pins.

Mashwani, who joined the then-fledgling Movement for Justice party five years ago, is the beneficiary of a major change implemented by Khan: The party opened its candidate selection process to novices such as Mashwani through intraparty elections.

The dominant parties do not do that, often awarding slots to friends, family and tribe members and former officials.

Khan’s approach deepened his common-man credentials, but at the risk of losing in some constituencies. So the party hedged its bets in other races by picking familiar faces known here as “electables” — old-line politicians who abandoned their previous affiliations to take a chance with Khan.

The problem with electables is that they undercut Khan’s claim to be a reformer and have alienated some of his youthful followers. But the problem with the Mashwani types is that they are easily mowed down in constituencies such as his.

Here, more than a dozen candidates are contesting, including independents and four men representing various well-known parties.

Some national polls show Khan running a strong second to Sharif, the PML-N head. But established party leaders say Mashwani will not enjoy a coattails effect.

“He is trying hard, but he is not in any position to make a breakthrough,” said the PML-N candidate, Iftikhar Mohmand, previously elected five times to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.

“His party is too raw,” added Mohmand, 63. “It’s too young.”

Khan and his candidates have only “small kids roaming around putting up flags,” said Sher Afghan Khan, the Pakistan People’s Party candidate and incumbent.

“I have delivered projects. I do all kinds of work for the people,” said the 52-year-old politician, who just concluded a five-year term. “I go to their weddings and funerals. I am always available on my mobile.”

Some political experts see Khan and his candidates paving the way for a more democratized Pakistan just by picking up a meaningful bloc of seats from which to challenge the status quo, even if it is unlikely that Khan will become prime minister.

“Can he prevail? Difficult to say at this point,” said Rasul Baksh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “Has he changed Pakistani politics forever? I think he has. He has a presence in every corner of the country.”

The challenge for newcomers such as Mashwani is to overcome voter fealty to dynastic parties, power networks, and tribal and religious leaders.

“I have seen many, many villagers in this constituency deprived of electricity and without roads and schools,” Mashwani said, sitting in a dirt-floor workshop littered with wood shavings. Two unfinished small cabinets were propped behind him. “I am hopeful we will win.”

But before Election Day, he still has to round up 1,200 volunteers to man polling stations in 70 villages. And distribute all 60,000 of those posters and 21,000 flags and 3,000 buttons.

He had to be harsh on his men, he said. Because, as he lectured them earlier, “if I lose, you will lose.”