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Breaking the Curse

by Nazar Ul Islam

Abdul Majeed—AFP

For over two decades, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has lashed out at incumbent governments. The PTI may well be the first political party to reverse this trend

The campaign for the 2018 general elections kicked off last month with enthusiasm and vigor in once-beleaguered Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Political parties started canvassing door-to-door, convening corner meetings and staging rallies large and small across the province. The terror threat that had prevented several groups from campaigning in the 2013 polls was believed to be a thing of the past. Following the brutal massacre of over 150 people—mostly students—at Peshawar’s Army Public School, the Pakistan Army had reportedly cleared the bulk of militants from the area. In press statements, the military boasted of dismantling the terror network that had taken root in the regions along the border with Afghanistan. The belief among all parties was that they finally had a level playing field under which they could contest the polls. That was not to last.

On July 10, a suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistani Taliban targeted a campaign rally in Peshawar. Twenty-two people were killed, among them Haroon Bilour, a senior leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) whose father Bashir Bilour had been killed in a suicide bombing six years earlier while campaigning for the 2013 polls. A day later, the second-deadliest attack in Pakistan’s history occurred in Mastung, Balochistan, killing at least 149 people and injuring over 100 more. The Islamic State militant group claimed that attack. In a statement, the National Counter-Terrorism Authority informed the Election Commission of Pakistan there were serious security threats to political leaders ahead of the July 25 elections and all parties risked being targeted. While all stakeholders pledged to continue campaigning after a mourning period, the belief that every party had an equal chance had been shattered.

“Had there been enough security, this [Peshawar bombing] could have been prevented,” says Ghazanfar Bilour, Haroon’s cousin, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision to withdraw security from political figures had been shortsighted. However, security analyst and former brigadier Mehmood Shah believes politicians must also shoulder some of the blame and should not have underestimated the security situation.

“These could be random incidents or the start of a new wave of terrorism, we don’t know yet,” he told Newsweek, adding that while the military had halted the infiltration of terrorists from across borders, it was impossible to eliminate militancy entirely. “There is dire need to make environmental security better. This is only possible through thorough intelligence-based operations,” he said, adding that overall the security situation was far better now than in 2013. This is small comfort to the families of those killed merely for wanting to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

No respite

Despite the increasingly restive climate, political parties across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have continued their election campaigns. The three major contenders in the region—Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the ANP—are battling to secure the maximum number of seats to form the next provincial government. Since 1993, the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have not voted any political party back into power for a second consecutive term. The PTI, which formed the government after 2013 elections, hopes to change this.

“The Pashtun are an independent people,” says senior PTI leader Ali Muhammad Khan from Mardan. “They are not slaves of others. They make their decisions by themselves. They don’t give vote for the second time to liars, cheaters, hypocrites and corrupt political parties,” he told Newsweek, adding that the PTI would win the upcoming vote because it had fulfilled its 2013 campaign promises of education, health and police reform. The party’s opponents, however, say this is eyewash.

Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao’s Qaumi Watan Party joined the PTI’s ruling coalition on two separate occasions, eventually falling out each time. He claims the alliance was short-lived because PTI chief Khan lacks the qualities required to oversee a coalition setup. A coalition government, he says, requires maturity, compromise and vision—not a belief that the party with the majority gets to call all the shots. “We left the coalition in 2013 because they sacked our ministers without informing us of their alleged corruption,” he says, adding that the PTI had subsequently failed to bring any of those charges to court.

“Imran Khan is famous for leveling allegations, be it at provincial or national level. His politics is inconsistent,” says Sherpao, predicting that Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s residents would not be fooled. “I cannot say the party will be wiped out as has happened in the past. But they will definitely lose the majority. They were more active in agitation than actual development during their tenure.”

The provincial head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is part of the MMA along with several other far-right organizations including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl), also hopes that July 25 will prove a day of reckoning for the PTI. Mushtaq Ahmad says the party, which was part of the PTI’s ruling coalition until May 2018, believes it can form a coalition government once more. “Our alliance with the PTI was limited to governance. We both exercised independent ideologies and policies,” he told Newsweek. “We are contesting the 2018 elections on the basis of the MMA’s performance during 2002-2007. Our manifesto is to address the biggest challenge to the country, corruption. We are the only alliance that is free of this menace,” he claimed.

Peshawar-based journalist Lehaz Ali believes the true strength of the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is their willingness to provide a chance to everyone. “In early 2000, following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the religious parties’ MMA rose to prominence on the back of religious sentiment,” he says, noting that their inability to bring any kind of lasting change prompted the people in 2007 to back the ANP on its pledge to eradicate terrorism. The party, however, lost support due to its failure in dealing with militants, creating a leadership vacuum that was filled by the PTI and its pledge to wipe out corruption.

Looking back at the past five years, he believes the PTI has done just enough to retain a presence in the province. Unlike the other parties, the PTI kept its workers engaged throughout its tenure with sit-ins, protests, rallies, lockdowns. This engagement, believes Ali, is primarily responsible for opposition parties failing to reduce the PTI’s popularity. Identifying Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Nowshera and Swabi as the main districts—comprising a third of provincial seats—he says the PTI has fielded very strong candidates in all the major constituencies. Areas where the PTI felt its previous candidates were weak have been handed to ‘electables’ in a bid to retain its majority. The party, he added, has a distinct advantage because it has a presence across the region, while its opposing parties are more centralized. Ali also praised the PTI’s decision to court the right-wing voter, noting that the religious parties or PMLN used to attract a base that is now increasingly shifting their loyalties to the PTI.

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s personal charisma also cannot be denied. The PTI’s chairman visited Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa regularly throughout the past five years, unlike the leaders of other political parties. His personal interest has retained supporters who had otherwise started to lose hope.

PTI’s Ali Muhammad Khan also believes his party’s leader plays a huge role in its continued appeal. In 2013, people were impressed with his slogan of “change,” and the people wanted to move past the politics of the established parties. “In 2013, people voted the PTI because they were fed-up with PMLN and PPP policies. This time they will vote for the PTI because the party has delivered on its promises. We will earn even more votes than before!” he predicted.

The PTI’s effective use of social media is another feather in its cap. At the provincial level, no other party has been able to challenge the PTI’s dominance online. They have been able to use their direct line to the voters to stage protests, announce policy decisions and give a veneer of transparency to their governance. Their opponents have been unable to mount any major rallies against them and, despite criticisms, have given the ruling party almost carte blanche in the province. In a vacuum, these factors would ensure a resounding victory for the PTI in the upcoming polls. Troublingly, the biggest barrier to the PTI’s re-emergence as the ruling government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa does not appear to be voter malaise, but its own reform policies—most of which, claim observers and opponents, have been blown out of proportion by an over-eager media.

Abdul Majeed—AFP

Contested reforms

The central plank of the PTI’s campaign has been its claims of sweeping reforms in the education, health and police sectors. It claims to have made the police independent of political interference, ramped up budgetary allocations for education and health and revamped public schools. It’s opponents and independent observers, however, feel the pace and scale of reform has been overblown and mostly cosmetic.

The QWP’s Sherpao, who also served as interior minister of Pakistan from 2004 to 2007, says the reforms are mostly propaganda. “They talk about schools, but no government school student posted brilliant results in the recent matriculation examinations,” he said, adding their “smart” school project was shelved because it proved too expensive and unfeasible. They have not built any new hospitals, nor have they tried to establish a DNA testing facility or Burn Unit in the province, despite it being the biggest victim of terror attacks, whose victims require them the most, he added. “So why should we buy their claims?”

Journalist Ali agrees. “Prior to the 2013 elections, they had claimed to eliminate all corruption from the province in 90 days. Instead, they struggled to even appoint a head of the accountability commission,” he says. The Bus Rapid Transit project, launched to improve transport service within Peshawar, was a colossal mess. They couldn’t complete it in time and have left Peshawar’s traffic deadlocked, potentially costing them votes from the provincial capital. “They terribly failed in the development sector,” he says, adding “there is a difference between government and governance.” Despite these shortcomings, he believes credit should be given where it is due.

“Instead of building new hospitals, they tried to improve the existing ones—to mixed results. Similarly, the billion-tree tsunami was a good project and came at the perfect time with the region starting to feel the worst effects of global warming. Their school reforms might not have yielded results yet, but they have employed thousands more teachers, started upgrading schools’ infrastructure and introduced a transparent monitoring system to ensure the attendance of students and staff,” he noted approvingly.

The ANP’s general secretary, Sardar Hussain Babak claimed the PTI’s tenure could not be compared to his party’s time in power. “We were not only fighting militancy, but also natural disasters” such as the 2010 floods that left nearly 2,000 people nationwide. “We fought against the TTP openly… while Imran Khan has been apologetic,” he said, adding the hundreds of dams PTI has proposed are not physically possible.

The PTI’s Ali Muhammad Khan admits that his party has failed in achieving its development goals. Specifically referring to the BRT-Swat Express Highway, he regrets that the government was unable to finish the road construction on time and has left a mess for locals. The same applies to the Peshawar Metro Bus project, which is currently awaiting approval after a massive 38% increase in its price. However, he feels roads and infrastructure are not the be-all, end-all. “I believe in improving human index development—to make the lives of people better,” he says, adding that ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif had failed to effectively reform institutions despite making roads across the country. “We brought reforms to the health, education, social services, police, and eliminated reliance on patwaris (revenue officials),” he added. In fact, supporters praise several of the PTI’s policies primarily because they reflect long-term planning and slow, but sure gains. Short-term projects are easy to sell, but fail in the capacity building that is necessary for Pakistan right now. But while the PTI paints a pretty picture for the future, internal rifts threaten to damage its self-stated aims of a clean, corruption-free government.

Internal feuds

Ziaullah Afridi was elected on a PTI ticket from Peshawar in the 2013 general elections. After his party won, he was appointed to the cabinet as the minister for Mines and Mineral Development. A year into his tenure, in June 2015, the accountability commission arrested him on multiple charges of corruption.

“This was clearly victimization. I was a hurdle for the Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and [PTI leader] Jahangir Khan Tareen because I would not let them indulge in any irregularities in the mining sector,” he claims to Newsweek, “That resulted in a heated debate in the presence of Imran Khan at his Bani Gala residence, within days of which I was placed under arrest.”

After Afridi secured bail, he quit the PTI but continued to serve in the provincial assembly. For the 2018 elections, he has joined the Pakistan Peoples Party, which he claims is not corrupt. “The alleged corruption of the PTI is clear from how many of its leaders have been investigated by the National Accountability Bureau,” he claimed, pointing to “mega corruption” in the tree plantation project, Khyber Bank and misuse of provincial facilities.

ANP’s Babak echoed the corruption allegations. “The party that came into power over its promises to eradicate corruption had its own minister accusing each other of malpractice,” he said. “The mining sector, Khyber Bank and the tourism sector were all placed in the hands of blue-eyed supporters, some of whom didn’t even belong to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” he said, questioning why the PTI had been unable to bring a single case of corruption against his party despite being in power for five years and having access to all relevant government documents. “Unfortunately, it appears the PTI has been using Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa as a launch-pad for its ambitions in Punjab,” he added.

“The PTI’s policies aren’t reliable,” former party worker Afridi told Newsweek. “They will criticize something today but will opt for it themselves the next day. A clear example is the metro bus and motorways project. They kept telling the people the PMLN was in the wrong for launching them but then initiated the same projects at much higher costs—and couldn’t even complete them,” he says.

The feuding may well have splintered some support for the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. But a key factor in the PTI’s favor remains undiminished: the all-important youth vote.

PMLN supporters rally in favor of Nawaz Sharif in Peshawar. Abdul Majeed—AFP

Demographic win

The 2013 general elections marked a turning point in Pakistan’s politics. Culturally, a majority of households across the country, but especially in the northern areas, have followed the advice of their elders, supporting the same leaders their parents or even grandparents did in the past. But with Pakistan’s youth bulge—in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa alone, 35 percent of the population is believed to be between 15 and 29 years old—that narrative started to shift.

Political activist and analyst Sajjad Ahmad says the PTI, and particularly Imran Khan, galvanized the youth and gave them a powerful tool of dissent. “This was not disrespect. Instead, the youth decided they would no longer blindly follow their elders and would instead think about what was best for their own future,” he tells Newsweek. That desire to secure one’s own future proved a powerful motivator and rather than being cowed by the more experienced, the youngsters ended up taking the lead. Ahmad says this shift proved uncomfortable to some and prompted much of the criticism of the PTI immediately after it assumed power in the province.

Recalling the last elections, Ahmad said there were men who were upset with their wives and children for voting against their wishes. “In the past, such differences of opinion have led to fractured families due to our patriarchal culture,” he said. But the desire to upend the status quo and bring about the “change” promised by Imran Khan was too powerful a lure.

“I think that blind junoon (obsession) is even stronger today than it was five years ago,” he says, pointing at every major political party’s decision to field candidates against the PTI instead of entering into seat adjustments as they have done in the past. “This alone proves how popular the PTI remains in this province. I expect they might gain even more seats this year than they did last time.”

Experts are inclined to agree with Ahmad. Independent observers say that aside from the MMA, there is no party that can pose a real challenge to the PTI in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. PPP Chaiman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and PMLN President Shahbaz Sharif, both of whom are also contesting on seats from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, are criticized for trying to secure votes without putting in the personal attention lavished by Imran Khan. The PTI also spent the past five years essentially operating an extended election campaign—conducting rallies in Sindh and Punjab—something their rivals have failed at.

Among local residents, there is also an overriding belief that this election is Imran Khan’s to lose. They feel that his premiership is inevitable and if they support him, and bring the PTI back into power, their province will secure more funding from the federal government and have a better shot at infrastructure and social sector development. No doubt there is concern that the PTI’s governance did not match its promises, but there are no other viable options.

Mehmood Jan Babar, the bureau chief of Geo television in Peshawar, believes this will be key to PTI’s chances on July 25. People are likely to support Khan and the PTI at the national level because he is still believed to be untested. Meanwhile, no other political leaders, apart from some overtures by the PPP, have shown much interest in the affairs of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. “The PMLN’s entire focus has been on Punjab. The PPP has been practically restricted to Sindh. Balochistan remains a no-go for most mainstream political parties. No national level party has the foundation required to challenge the PTI’s governance, and they are contesting the general elections without hindrance,” he told Newsweek.

A lot of this also falls on the opposition failing to establish its case for the PTI’s alleged corruption. “There were a lot of loopholes in the PTI tenure but no one dared to highlight their blunders,” says Babar. During the MMA’s tenure, it was accused of enforcing a parallel law system; during the ANP’s time, it was dubbed “easy load” owing to their alleged corruption. Nobody questioned Imran Khan’s claims or his often-unfounded allegations targeting his rivals. The party, regardless of ground realities, appears clean to the voters. And that perception is everything.

The PTI’s Ali Muhammad Khan sums it up: “We will not come into power because of an anti-Nawaz or anti-Zardari vote. We will come into power through a pro-Imran vote.” With the PTI chief’s personal appeal undimmed, and his opponents busy elsewhere, the election—at least in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa—may well be his to lose.

From the July 21 – 28, 2018 issue

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