By Zia Ur Rehman

July 27-Aug 02, 2012

As political and religious parties gear up for the elections expected late this year or early next year, leaders and activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Tribal Administrated Areas (FATA) are concerned about their safety. Taliban and other militant groups have killed a large number of political leaders and workers and threatened many others, and that may have a negative impact on the elections in these areas where 10 million voters exercise their democratic right.

“The poor security situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa indicates that incidents of violence are likely in the next elections,” said Ali Hazrat Bacha, a veteran Peshawar-based journalist who covers politics and militancy. “The Taliban are still in a position to carry out sabotage acts, even in sensitive areas.” He said the situation in FATA was difficult to study because of the ongoing military operation against the militants.

Top leaders of Awami National Party (ANP), Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and Pakistan People’s Party-Sherpao (PPP-S) have survived in suicide attacks, and tens of parliamentarians, political leaders and activists have been killed in the province in the last four years.

In 2011, at least 18 terrorist attacks were reported against political leaders and workers of various political parties in KP and FATA, according to the Pakistan Security Report 2011, a publication of Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). This year, Aftab Khan Sherpao, the head of his own faction of the PPP, and Khushdil Khan Advocate, deputy speaker of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, were targetted in suicide attacks in which they survived.

According to political analysts, security agencies have repeatedly warned the political and religious figures of the province of threats to their lives. They believe that Taliban groups will use their terror to influence the elections.

The biggest challenge facing the ANP and its ally PPP in the province is militancy and terrorism. The ANP, due to its Pashtun nationalist and secular outlook, has always been opposed to the Taliban and their predecessors, the Afghan mujahideen. “The ANP is the main target of terrorism because our leaders have strongly opposed extremism,” an ANP lawmaker from the Swat valley said. “With the support of the local population, the ANP government has defeated militants in Malakand division.”

The ANP has lost scores of party workers and lawmakers in attacks carried out by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but its leadership is defiant and has pledged to continue to fight the militants.

“We can’t move freely to mobilize our party workers or run an election campaign in the province because of security threats posed by different Taliban and militant outfits,” the lawmaker said. But he was confident the party leadership would devise a safety strategy. “We have to find a way to approach the voters, like holding corner meetings in walled compounds, without exposing anyone to harm.”

ANP chief Asfandyar Wali survived a suicide bombing in his hujra in Charsadda on October 3, 2008 when he was meeting party workers and the locals on Eid. Sources in the party said he left the country for some time after the attack, because of security concerns.

The JUI-F, which is considered ideologically close to the Taliban, is now also a target of Taliban militants. Key leaders and activists of JUI-F have been targeted and killed in KP and FATA by Taliban militants in the last four years. Even the party’s chief, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has been targeted in two failed assassination attempts.

Analysts believe that the attacks on the JUI-F leadership are a result of a growing ideological divide among Pakistani Taliban concerning the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. Pakistani Taliban openly denounce democracy and label Pakistan an “un-Islamic” state, while the JUI-F supports democratic means as well as the authority of the Pakistani state.

“Militant outfits are targeting the JUI-F ever since the party started condemning suicide attacks in Pakistan,” said a party leader in Tank district. He said the attacks on Fazlur Rehman and killing of JUI-F workers was proof that the Taliban and the JUI-F were not ideologically aligned. The party has widespread support in KP, FATA and Balochistan, and it is considered the only political party in Pakistan that has a strong organizational structure in the volatile tribal areas.

The militants distribute pamphlets in tribal areas warning residents not to attend JUI-F rallies and threaten their local leadership, said the leader, adding that certain ‘hidden forces’ were trying to bring hardcore Taliban militants into FATA’s electoral politics, replacing what he called the mature JUI-F leadership.

The Afghan Taliban have also threatened a number of political and religious leaders from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, citing them as responsible for the death of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, according to a report in daily The News. JUI-F chief Fazlur Rahman is on top of the new hitlist prepared by the Afghan Taliban, the report said. The list also includes Attaur Rahman, brother of Fazlur Rahman, central leaders of the ANP including the party’s chief Asfandyar Wali , Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, party spokesman Senator Zahid Khan, MNA Bushra Gohar, and members of the Arbab family of Peshawar belonging to the PPP.

Political analysts believe that in the coming elections, southern districts including Karak, Kohat, Hangu, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, DI Khan and Tank will be sensitive from the security point of view. “According to security agencies, the districts of Malakand division are now secured to some extent but nobody can claim that Taliban have been eliminated altogether,” said Bacha. Fazlullah, head of the Taliban in Malakand division, has re-emerged as a problem, and that has worried the political leadership of region.

The PPP-led ruling alliance is on the verge of reversing its earlier decision to hold general elections in FATA largely because of security reasons and ongoing military operations against militant outfits, sources privy to the developments said. In August, President Asif Ali Zardari extended the Political Parties Act (PPA) to FATA and introduced a regulation to amend the colonial-area Frontier Crimes Regulations under Article 247 of the constitution, putting FATA on an almost equal footing politically with other regions in Pakistan. The objective was to allow political parties to operate freely in an attempt to counterbalance the militant groups, but the plan failed because political parties are reluctant to start organizational and electoral activities in the volatile region.

Prior to that, FATA’s 12 assemblymen and 8 senators were elected independently and could not join any political party. Tribal candidates will be allotted symbols of their respective political parties in the next general elections.

Since the 2008 elections, the seat of NA-42 of South Waziristan, which consists of Mehsud areas of South Waziristan, has been lying vacant because of the law and order situation and the ongoing military operation in the constituency. But polling was conducted on all other 11 seats of the National Assembly in FATA, including the NA-41 constituency of South Waziristan, consisting of Wazir areas.

Some political observers say the leaders of ANP, PPP and JUI-F are cut off from the people because of security fears, and that is sending the voters away towards Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). “These parties have easier access to people because of their softer views on Taliban,” said Ali Hussain, a Swat-based political analyst.

Ahead of the general elections, dozens of banned jihadi outfits and the right-wing PTI, JI and PML-N have safely organized political meetings across the province. The liberal ANP and PPP appear to be losing grounds because “they have to limit their political activities due to growing security concerns”, Hussain said.

Idress Kamal, a leader of Aman Tehrik, a provincial civil-society alliance, believes elections in rural areas are about personalities and not parties. Terrorism, he says, will only affect the elections in urban areas, where there will be an atmosphere of fear. Most terrorist attacks in the province have been carried out in urban areas.

The writer is a journalist and researcher. Email: