Seven months since the dissolution of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly—and with a date for general elections yet to be announced—a majority of political parties in the province have lamented the military establishment’s alleged ongoing “interference” in the political process, but admitted it is a reality they must reckon with.
Numerically the third-most populous province of the country with 40.85 million people, per the results of the recently-concluded digital census, the KP Assembly comprises 145 elected lawmakers, including 26 seats reserved for women and 4 for minorities. Governed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) from 2013 through 2023, KP is considered a stronghold of the party that is currently reeling from a crackdown triggered by the May 9 riots that saw its supporters and leader target civil and military assets, including the Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar and martyrs’ monuments. As a consequence of the crackdown, the embattled party has seen several defections, with its rivals sensing blood in the water and hoping to recover the political capital they have lost amidst rampant inflation and economic turmoil under the ruling coalition that came into power after the ouster of Imran Khan as prime minister in April 2022.
Despite the ongoing crackdown, PTI spokesman Barrister Saif maintains the party will return with a landslide victory—if there is no “interference” in the election process. “If free and fair elections are held, there’s no competition between the PTI and other political parties even if they join hands under one umbrella,” he claimed to the Standard. “However, if manipulation and gerrymandering by non-political forces are not curtailed, the situation could be different,” he admitted, echoing accusations levelled against the PTI in the 2018 general elections, when the party enjoyed the establishment’s support.
Referring to a recent by-election for the tehsil chairman of Mathra, Peshawar, which the PTI won by nearly 7,000 votes, he said it had proven the party’s popularity remains undiminished by the fallout of the May 9 riots. “The PTI claimed victory despite its main leadership being in jail; the police hunting down its local leadership; and most of its leaders in hiding,” he said, adding attempts to dismantle the party by allocating defectors in the newly-formed PTI-Parliamentarians were doomed to fail.
The manner in which the new party was formed by former PTI stalwart Pervez Khattak, Saif alleged, had raised questions. “Most of the people who have joined the party were already rejected PTI tickets for lack of performance, while some gave in to the pressure as they were threatened by non-political forces to implicate them in corruption cases,” he claimed, alleging further that two jailed lawmakers—Malik Wajidullah and Arbab Wasim—were inducted into the party by “force” and had subsequently issued video statements rejecting they had left the PTI.
Saif also alleged that he had been encouraged to join Khattak’s party and his refusal had led to “illegal raids” on his homes in Islamabad, Swabi and Peshawar. “Right now, I am in hiding. All our local leadership is on the run, we have pulled out SIMs from our mobiles and are using VPNs so our locations are not traced,” he claimed.
He also rebutted any impression that the ANP—which he described as “Absent from National Politics”—and the JUIF were more popular than the PTI, stressing their claims were “highly exaggerated.”
The Awami National Party (ANP), once considered most prominent party of KP, has lost much of its luster over the past decade, partially due to the adverse impact of militancy that disproportionately targeted its leaders. While its KP President Aimal Wali Khan rebuts Saif’s assertions of the PTI’s sustained popularity, he agreed that Khattak’s party would fail “miserably.”
Speaking with the Standard, he maintained that the PTI had been “made and backed” by the establishment and would collapse with the loss of that support. He claimed the ANP’s only viable rival in the province was the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUIF), noting parties such as the PPP and PMLN had a “minimal” presence. However, in a rare show of agreement with the PTI, he stressed on the need to end any “military intervention” in the political process.
“First of all, they [establishment] should seek historical apology from the nation that they would not interfere in politics, as this malpractice has been going on since 1947,” he said, pointing to the formation of the PTI-P as the latest example of an attempt to sideline democratic forces. “Only political forces have the mandate and potential to run, deliver and serve the country if they are not hindered by non-democratic forces,” he said, while expressing concern over a delay in conducting elections “indefinitely.”
Nonetheless, he maintained, his party would secure at least 25 seats from Peshawar, Mardan and Malakand if free and fair polls were held.
The party led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a member of the ruling coalition that comprised the former government, believes it is best placed to form the next provincial government after elections. Reiterating allegations of Imran Khan being brought to power in the province “by force,” party spokesman Maulana Hafiz Hamdullah reiterated that the JUIF has a “strong” position in Mardan, Malakand, Mingora, Swat, Kohat, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank and the erstwhile tribal areas. However, he acknowledged, its position was weak in Mansehra, Attabad and Haripur.
Echoing the ANP, he claimed it was the only “real” challenge to the JUIF, adding his party did not see any future for the PTI under Imran Khan or the PTI-P under Pervez Khattak. “The JUIF can secure around 50 seats in the National Assembly If the establishment doesn’t interfere,” he claimed.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has been striving to make inroads into KP for several years, believes prevailing conditions do not support a simple majority for any single party. Speaking with the Standard, party leader Faisal Karim Kundi—who hails from D.I. Khan—said it was likely the next government would be the result of a coalition. While acknowledging the sustained popularity of the PTI, he noted that several of its leaders had joined the PPP, including Dr. Haider from Swat, Usman Taraki from Swabi and Jawad Husain from Orakzai.
Stressing that the PPP did not support a ban on any political party, he voiced concerns over the ongoing delays to elections to form a new government. “The KP caretaker provincial government’s notification to stop political parties from holding any gatherings and campaigns shows its mala fide intentions,” he claimed, while also criticizing the Council of Common Interests (CCI) decision to conduct elections under new consensus—despite his party’s government in Sindh backing it. “First all, the decision was made in the absence of two elected chief ministers, as the caretaker C.M.s lack the public mandate to give their vote on such a critical matter,” he said. “Secondly, [changes to seat allocations] require a constitutional amendment, which Parliament lacked,” he added.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), widely believed to have suffered the greatest loss of political capital under rampant inflation, admits that the PTI’s vote bank remains intact. However, the party’s KP president, Amir Muqam, believes this will gradually diminish as more leaders defect following the May 9 riots. Expressing optimism about the PMLN’s chances in Hazara, Shangla, Malakand and Peshawar, he rebuffed the impression of the party having minimal stakes in KP by claiming politicians who lacked sufficient support even in their own towns often expressed this view.
On the alleged role of establishment in the political process, Muqam said all parties must now reckon with this unfortunate reality. “Military interference in politics is a reality and we’ll have to live with this forever,” he said. “Therefore, it’s better to accept it and move along with it to steer the country out of economic and political crisis,” he added.
Fighting for power
All parties that spoke with the Standard maintained they had a shot at securing a significant number of seats in the next general elections—whenever they might occur. But they have all pegged this belief on a “level playing field” and “free and fair” elections, while admitting uncertainty over this. For the PTI, the biggest issue is a potential ban, with Saif claiming the party is being reorganized at grassroots level to avoid such an eventuality. “Relaunching the PTI under a new name; fielding of independent candidates are a part of this plan. We will manage our candidates in every constituency and will not leave the ground open for our opponents,” he maintained. Its foremost challenge may well come from preventing further defections to the PTI-P, whose chief Khattak maintains that it would emerge as the major winner after elections.
In a brief chat with the Standard, he also denied allegations that the establishment was backing his party, though it is apparent none of his rival parties agree.