By Zia Ur Rehman

Nov 16-22, 2012

Nearly a decade after its inception, Pakistan People’s Party-Sherpao is getting ready to shake up Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s political landscape, with a new flag, a new Pashtun-nationalist manifesto and a new name. On October 17, the leadership of PPP-S formally renamed the party Qaumi Watan Party, and invited all Pashtun politicians to join hands with them for the restoration of peace in the militancy-hit region.

“The so-called Pashtun nationalist parties have failed to deliver, and have disappointed the people of the province, the tribal areas, Karachi and other parts of the country where the Pashtuns are settled,” said Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, QWP’s chairman. “That has created a vacuum that we are going to fulfill. We aim to introduce neo-nationalism in the region.”

He said the restoration of peace in the Pashtun region was his party’s top priority. Sherpao said his party would also focus on development, especially in the militancy-hit areas, reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure, improvement of the socio-economic conditions of the people, and creating job opportunities.

After eight months of consultation with party leaders from across the province and from FATA, the PPP-S central executive committee approved the new manifesto. Milli Watan Party, Pakhtunkhwa Olasi Party and National Peace Movement were other names that were considered by the party leaders.

Aftab Sherpao’s political career began after the assassination of his elder brother Hayat Muhammad Khan Sherpao, a key PPP leader, in a bomb blast in 1975. On request of then prime minister and PPP leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Aftab, who was serving as a major in Pakistan Army at that time, took an early retirement and joined politics. In a few years, he had become a top leader of the PPP and for a while remained the PPP second-in-command after Benazir Bhutto. He served as the chief minister of the province in 1988 and 1994. After developing serious differences with Benazir in 1999, he formed his own faction of PPP. Initially the PPP-S made it hard for the PPP to operate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as almost all former ministers, parliamentarians and office-holders – especially Ahmed Hassan and Parvez Khattak – joined Sherpao. But gradually, almost all of them returned to the PPP.

In the 2002 general elections, PPP-S won two seats in the National Assembly and 10 seats in the provincial assembly -because of a seat-to-seat adjustment with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. In the 2008 elections, the party won one seat in the National Assembly and six in the provincial assembly.

Political analysts agree there is space for a new Pashtun ethnic party, and the QWP may be able to fill the gap. “Sherpao wanted to focus on Pashtun ethnic politics and the platform of PPP didn’t serve that purpose, so he changed the party name,” said Asad Munir, a political analyst who monitors KP’s political affairs very closely.

Aziz Buneri, a Peshawar-based journalist, said ANP was the only Pashtun ethnic party in KP, and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party was limited to the Pashtun-dominated areas of Balochistan. “The QWP has provided an alternative political platform for disgruntled ethnic political workers,” he said. Before the announcement of the new nationalist party, PPP-S leaders worked closely on issue of peace with the province’s civil society, poets and intellectuals on the platform of Pakhtunkhwa Jamhoori Taroon, and were able to attract many ethnic and progressive leaders in the last 18 months.

A gunman supporting Aftab Sherpao walks by a polling station during the 2008 elections

Several key leaders of ANP from Swabi, including advocate Saleem Khan, former provincial secretary general, Jahanzaib Khan, former district Nazim, Jamil Marghuz, former district secretary general of the party and prominent writer, have joined Sherpao’s party. It is under pressure from these new recruits that Sherpao renamed his party, analysts believe. QWP leaders deny the impression.

As new people joined Sherpao, some old friends left him. They include parliamentarians elected on PPP-S tickets. Sher Akbar Khan, Jamshed Khan and Tariq Khattak from Nowshera quit the party recently.

“Sherpao thought this was the best opportunity to make some space for his party with the slogan of Pashtun politics,” Munir said, adding that he might make an insignificant dent in the ANP vote bank but it will depend on his alliance with other political parties and any prominent electables joining him.

Buneri thinks the QWP can easily win seats from the districts of Charsadda and Swabi. Known to be a sharp politician and an expert in give-and-take adjustments, Sherpao can get some seats from Buner, Swat and Lower Dir after making alliances with other parties, he added.

Other analysts disagree. “We have seen the formation of several such Pashtun ethnic parties in the past – including Afzal Khan Lala’s Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party, Ajmal Khattak’s National Awami Party Pakistan and progressive groups led by Afrasyab Khattak and Latif Afridi,” said a Swat based activist. “But some of them later merged with the ANP, and others disappeared.”

QWP leaders say their party cannot be compared with those groups because it was not a new party, but a continuation of PPP-S.

That may not go in its favor. “The ANP appreciates the formation of QWP but it is also a fact that a person can’t become a Pashtun nationalist by just changing his party’s name and flag,” said Malik Mustafa, spokesman of ANP in the province. Talking to reporters, he said Sherpao should join the ANP if he wanted to become a Pashtun ethnic leader.

Like the ANP, Sherpao’s party is also facing the challenge of terrorism and militancy. Aftab Sherpao and his son Sikandar Sherpao, who is also party’s provincial chief, have survived suicide attacks. Recently, QWP lost an important leader in Buner when Saeed Ahmed Khan aka Fateh Khan and his bodyguard were killed in a suicide attack in Daggar on November 3.