by Zia Ur Rehman

May 17-23, 2013

Despite Taliban threats, voter turnout in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the May 11 elections was exceptionally high. And the results were surprising.

Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) emerged as the largest party in the province, winning 34 seats in the provincial assembly, and 17 seats from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the National Assembly, according to unofficial results.

PTI swept Peshawar and Nowshera, and also won in Swat, Malakand, Mardan, Kohat, Charsadda, Hangu, Swabi, Abottabad and Haripur. A majority of the party’s provincial legislators are inexperienced, having never been elected to the parliament before. “The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recognized PTI’s efforts in drawing international attention to the US drone strikes,” said Abdul Quayyum Kundi, a party leader in the southern districts of the province.

A number of veteran political leaders lost to younger, lesser known candidates of the increasingly popular Tehrik-e-Insaaf, including Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, Arbab Alamgir, Amir Muqam and Sardar Mehtab Abbasi – prominent leaders of their parties. Syed Zahir Shah, Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Aqil Shah, Kiramatullah Chagarmati, and Pir Sabir Shah also lost. The Bilour family backed by the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Arbabs of Peshawar who belong to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the ANP, were also ousted by the PTI.

Political analysts say the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have elected a new party in every election in the last 20 years – the PPP in 1993, the Pakistan Muslim Leagie-Nawaz (PML-N) in 1997, the MMA in 2002, the ANP in 2008, and the PTI in 2013. “Some would say the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are vibrant,” said Imtiaz Ali, a Washington-based analyst who monitors the province’s politics. “If they are not satisfied with a party’s performance, they do not vote for it the second time.” For Abdul Quayyum Kundi, that means the PTI will have to ensure impeccable service delivery to satisfy its voters if it wants to get elected again.

The use of mainstream and social media helped the Tehrik-e-Insaaf’s popularity, analysts say. Political observers also say the ANP and the PPP leadership were cut off from the people because they could not hold public meetings due to security fears. That sent the voters away to the PTI, which campaigned freely in the absence of threats by the Taliban.

“The PTI had easier access to people in the run-up to the elections because of their softer views on Taliban,” said Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a Swat-based political analyst. “Imran Khan organized large rallies across the province while the ANP and the PPP leaders were confined to their homes because of Taliban attacks.”

Some analysts see the success of the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as reminiscent of the victory of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the province in the 2002 elections. The situation in Afghanistan played a key role on both occasions, they say. During the party’s electoral campaign and before it, Imran Khan was accused of exploiting religious sentiments of people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, promised to stop drone attacks in the tribal areas, and stop supporting the US in the war in Afghanistan.

Others see a conspiracy by the establishment. One ANP leader said it “engineered” the elections, and the attacks on his party were a deliberate attempt to keep them out of the parliament. Imtiaz Ali said there had been “endless discussions” on such theories.

Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai said the ANP had no strategy to counter the growing influence of the PTI in the province, especially among the youth. “They were depending on older and more traditional politicians, and did not adopt new tools of politics, especially the television and the social media.” Analysts say both the ANP and the PPP have the capacity to rise again, because they do have roots in the masses.

Fazlur Rehman’s faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) is the second biggest winner, after it was able to counter the PTI’s increasing influence in its southern strongholds. “Out votes increased by 150 percent,” claimed Jan Muhammad Achakzai, a spokesman of the party, adding that it was the ANP, the PPP and the PML-N that had suffered because of PTI’s rise. He claimed a “clean sweep” from Lakki Marwat to Dera Ismail Khan, while also accusing the administration of supporting the Saifullahs and the Kundis of the PPP. “We won seats from areas like Buner, Charsadda, Battagram, Swat and Chitral.” He also said the elections had been engineered by “the boys” who had favored the ANP in 2008, and that his party demanded re-polling in 10 constituencies.

Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), led by Aftab Sherpao, secured one national and seven provincial seats from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Jamaat-e-Islami won three national and seven provincial seats. The PML-N was able to protect some of its strongholds in Hazara division and Shangla district.

Set to form a government in the province, Imran Khan has named Pervaiz Khattak as the party’s parliamentary leader, which means he will be a candidate for chief minister. The PTI is talking to Jamaat-e-Islami and the QWP to form a coalition.

In the 99-member Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, the PTI has 34 seats, the JUI-F has 16, the PML-N 12, the ANP has five, the JI and the QWP have seven each, and the PPP has two. Thirteen members of the provincial assembly are independent.

Although a number of leaders of the PML-N have announced they will allow the PTI to form a government in the province, the JUI-F is busy trying to cobble an alliance of its own. Its leader Fazlur Rehman also called PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif with a proposal to form a coalition government, according to news reports.

The new PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will have a number of challenges to face right at the outset. “These challenges include ensuring peace, the return of internally displaced people to their homes, economic problems, local governments, the development of the southern districts, and law and order,” said Abdul Quayyum Kundi.

But analysts say that the first and the foremost challenge would be militancy. “The PTI has a very simplistic view of the militancy in the tribal regions,” said Imtiaz Ali in Washington. “The problem is very complex and it can’t be resolved only by negotiations as they say.”