By Zia UrRehman

June 7, 2013

SWAT, Pakistan – As official voter turnout numbers are still coming in from across Pakistan for its May 11 general election, it is becoming clearer that a healthy number of voters – especially of women – testifies to the success of anti-Taliban security operations that began in 2009 in Swat and to the general public’s rejection of militant terror.

A Pakistani woman May 11 casts her ballot in the Haji Baba area of Mingora. For the first time in Swat, all women’s polling stations operated in 2013, despite societal barriers and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threats. [Courtesy of Zia Ur Rehman]
In stark contrast to the 2008 election, when virtually no women voted in 164 of the 203 Swat female polling stations in districts NA-29 and NA-30, Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) statistics show that an unprecedented number of women voted in the same districts in 2013.

In both districts, the overall voter turnout jumped from about 18% in 2008 to 35%, ECP figures showed.

Furthermore, four Swat female politicians won seats set aside for women. Musarat Ahmedzaib and Aisha will represent Swat in the National Assembly (NA), while Nadia Sher and Yasmeen Peer Muhammad now sit in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Provincial Assembly (PA).

The high turnout proves that security forces, which poured into the Swat Valley starting in 2009, have shattered the local terrorist network, Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a Swat-based political analyst, said.

“In the name of Islam and Sharia, Taliban militants imposed an inhumane system in Swat [starting in 2007] and influenced the 2008 general polls negatively,” Abdul Mabood, a voter in the Charbagh area, said.

“We do not want that repeated and voted democratically to elect a new government,” he said.

2013: A vote of change : 

In contrast to 2008 – when nearly 81% of women’s polling stations in Swat were not functional – “women fully participated in voting this time,” Fazal Khaliq, a Swat-based journalist who covered the election, told Central Asia Online.

“In this election, the turnout was exceptionally high in Swat,” he said, “even in the upper parts of Swat, which was once a stronghold of Taliban militants.”

The key reason for Swat’s low voter turnout in 2008 was the presence of the Taliban militants, he said.

“Taliban militants were targeting political leaders and candidates in the 2008 polls, which created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty,” Yousafzai said. They killed several political activists and threatened many others affiliated with liberal political parties, especially the Awami National Party (ANP).

Candidates from all political parties in Swat, fearful of Taliban attacks, jointly decided to keep women from voting that year.

“We were too afraid to leave our homes,” Ayesha Bibi, a woman voter from the Barikot area, said, explaining that in 2008, women could not prevent their disenfranchisement.

However, 2013 proved encouraging for political and human rights activists.

All Swat women’s polling stations remained functional and long queues formed outside hundreds of polling stations across the district in defiance of threats by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Mabood said.

Swatis, the majority of whom did not exercise their right to vote in 2008, cast their votes this time, Yousafzai said.

A security success : 

In addition to military operations that eroded the Taliban’s presence in Swat, enhanced security measures and the work of activists promoting the election helped to boost voter turnout.

A few days before the general elections, TTP militants warned voters to stay away from political gatherings organised by the three liberal political parties – the ANP, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – but no major electoral violence occurred in Swat during the election, said Khaliq.

Tough security measures were in effect, with police and army soldiers constantly patrolling across the district. Out of 617 polling stations in Swat, the ECP declared 150 as “sensitive” and 50 as “most sensitive” for security concerns, Swat-based local daily Chand reported. Those deemed more sensitive received more police and security personnel.

With security in place, woman activists of various political parties also played a role in persuading women to vote in Swat, Bibi said.

Electronic media played a positive role in mobilising women to vote as well, she added.

Despite the Taliban threats, the exceptionally high voter turnout, the full participation of women and a peaceful atmosphere contributed to a successful general election – a clear indication that the Taliban have been defeated in Swat, Mabood said.