The dynamics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s politics have always been different from the rest of the country, primarily because of the region’s environment and voting trends, which are mostly based on the incumbent government’s performance. With the 2018 general election coming up this year, politicking has geared up in KP as in the rest of the country.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) which had banked on the slogan of transparency, fair-play, merit and battling against corruption in the 2013 general elections, has to defend the field and retain its position in the upcoming polls. Though the PTI passed a litmus test by winning the NA-4 by-elections, with the party fielding a non-ideological contestant, who was a former Awami National Party (ANP) stalwart, it will not be a free ride for the PTI in the 2018 general election. The party will be held accountable by the voters on the promises of ‘tabdeeli’ (change), which did come true to some extent, but not to the satisfaction of the majority.
There is no denying the fact that the PTI is still a hot favourite, given that its government carried out police reforms, provided education and health emergency coverage, appointments on merit, hydel projects, the rapid bus transport system and passing some key legislation. But it’s also faced with the harsh reality of internal bickering, as well as criticism for inducting and preferring wealthy candidates like the rest of the political parties and ignoring die-hard but poor PTI workers.
Keeping in view the past electoral results of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), there is a general perception that the voters are unanimous in rooting out bad governance, as happened in the case of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in 2008, and the ANP-PPP alliance in 2013. All of them were routed from power comprehensively.
The PTI has to be careful as well and reassess what it has achieved in the past five years. Mere sloganeering and propaganda will not work alone as multiple factors often play a decisive role on the day of voting. It’s often a single track ride – which can turn the tide for any political party.
In the 2008 general election, the over-all strength of the Awami National Party (ANP) in the provincial assembly was 49, the Pakistan Peoples Party Parliamentarians pulled in 20, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) gained 14, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) obtained seven seats, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q won six, the PPP (Sherpao) also won six, and 33 independents won their seats. These numbers include reserved seats.
Unlike Punjab and Sindh, the voting trend in the KP often proves deceptive and no single party usually gains a clear majority.
Most often, the leading party has to opt for alliances with either regional parties, or the mainstream political party ruling in the center usually forms the government in KP, as happened in the 1988 and 1993 governments of the PPP, the 1990 and 1997 government of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad/PML-N and also during the ANP-PPP allied government in 2008 where the PPP ruled in the centre and the ANP was its ally.
The MMA, in 2002 however, won 48 seats and formed a government on its own by roping in independents. But in 2013, even the PTI had to opt for an alliance with the QWP, the JI and Awami Jamhoori Ittehad of Swabi for the formation of the government.
While there is always a possibility that there would be no split mandate in 2018 and a single party may emerge victorious with a clear majority, the odds are that it will again be a coalition government.
The voting trend in central, southern and northern KP, as well as the Hazara Division, has always remained diverse and often proved tricky, as observed in 2008 and 2013. The trend established in these regions will likely impact the overall outcome in the upcoming 2018 polls.
Most important is central KP, or the Peshawar valley cluster, which comprises Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan, Swabi and Charsadda, with 36 provincial assembly seats out of a total of 99 and it will still remain a deciding pitch in the 2018 elections.
In 2002, the MMA secured the leading number of seats in this cluster along with its own stronghold in the southern districts. The ANP-PPP won here in 2008 and the PTI dominated here in 2013. The QWP, led by Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, a former PPP leader and interior minister, has its own clout in the Charsadda district as well as in Swabi, which gives the party a decisive role in KP politics as well.
The southern cluster of Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Bannu, Karak, Kohat and Lakki Marwat is mostly the stronghold of the JUI-F. The PPP had also performed well there in the past, before the PTI made inroads in 2013. But independent candidates from this region have always been important as many have played a key role in the formation of all governments in the past and will still be key in the 2018 election.
The Hazara Division has traditionally been a stronghold of the PML-N, but the independent candidates from Hazara have also been elected in good numbers because of family ties, ethnic links and ‘biradari’ (clan) politics. Of 14 independents elected in 2013, 11 were elected from Hazara and the southern clusters.
The Malakand division cluster comprising Malakand, Buner, Swat, Shangla, Chitral and Lower and Upper Dir usually provide split mandates. The PPP, the PML-N and JI have scored in their strongholds, but the victories were mostly linked to the affiliation of powerful families changing political loyalties, to remain in power and continue with their habit of ruling their subjects as their forefathers did in these regions when they were the dynastic rulers or walis. The JI victory, however, mostly relied on religious clout, while the PTI won some seats in this cluster in 2013 on the slogan of change and the charisma of their party chief, Imran Khan. The PTI will be optimistic in the upcoming contest this year as well.
A potential game-changer in the politics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, if it happens, will be the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into KP. This would add an additional 20 seats to the KP Assembly, but the question will still remain whether the FATA incumbents would be voting or not in the assembly.
The issue of the FATA merger will still affect the 2018 elections as the majority of the tribesmen, living in settled areas of KP, are voters on the basis of their permanent residence in these areas. Almost all political parties including PTI, PPP, ANP, QWP, JI and others, except the JUI-F and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), want FATA’s merger with KP forthwith, but the PML-N has so far been dragging its feet on the merger despite a go-ahead by its own reforms committee led by Sartaj Aziz. This has also increased resentment among the tribesmen against the PML-N and the parties opposing the merger.
The 20 FATA seats, if added, and they should be, since a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Khaqan Abbasi on December 18, had approved the merger but not announced it publicly, could be decisive in the formation of the government in the KP as well.
FATA would be going to the general polls for the KP Assembly for the first time and, by looking at the support to the political parties, the PTI, JI and the ANP to some extent, may surface as major winning parties. The PPP and the PML-N could also win a few seats while the MMA cannot be ruled out.
The ruling PTI, as it appears from its priorities, is mostly relying on the tried and trusted Peshawar valley and Swat district as it drew its strength from these cities in the 2013 elections, as reflected in the figures of PTI seats in each district, Peshawar 11, Nowshera 6, Charsadda 4, Mardan 6, Swabi 4, Malakand 1, Swat 6, Shangla 1, Kohat 3, Karak 2, Kohistan 2, Abbotabad 2, Haripur 2, Bannu 1 and Dera Ismail Khan 4.
Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has also focused on the Peshawar valley cluster and a major chunk of funds have been spent in Pervez Khattak’s home district, Nowshera and Speaker Asad Qaiser’s home town of Swabi.
But spending development funds is not a sure-fire road to victory in this cluster. Pervez Khattak’s predecessors, Amir Haider Khan Hoti of the ANP and MMA’s Akram Khan Durrani had also focused on this cluster in the hope of getting major seats from here, but both parties were completely uprooted from this cluster in 2013 and 2008 respectively. The PTI would have to go the extra mile to break this trend if Pervez Khattak wants a second term as chief minister of KP.
Another challenge for the PTI in the 2018 elections would be the revival of the MMA. The Jamaat-e-Islami, though still a PTI ally in the KP government, would soon be parting ways and will contest the next polls as a JUI-F ally in the MMA. It would be very interesting to see how the PTI woos voters when it is contesting against Jamaat-i-Islami in 2018. The JI would also be in a fix when it is allied with the JUI-F, despite the fact that JI has been leading the drive against Nawaz Sharif’s corruption while the JUI-F has been standing by the PML-N in the name of saving democracy though enjoying perks and privileges. The ideological workers would also be in a quandary over such unrealistic alliances.
To counter the MMA threat, Pervez Khattak reportedly executed a tactical move, and succeeded in keeping the JUI-S, headed by Maulana Sami ul Haq, out of MMA, first by extending massive financial assistance to the tune of Rs. 300 million to Darul Uloom Haqqania and then drawing Maulana Sami ul Haq to the PTI camp as well. This move, many believe, is to counter the MMA influence in some districts.
Another move by the PTI government to muster the support of religious circles is the provision of a monthly stipend to the prayer leaders of all KP mosques on which more than Rs. 3 billion would be spent. This would also give an edge to the PTI to bag religious votes, as the PTI has been a supporter of the anti-US and anti War on Terror rhetoric, which most of the religio-political parties had been playing upon to get the populous religious votes in the province.
The PML-N has also had a chequered history in the province. After 1988, it ruled the KP province twice, once in 1993 for a short period with Pir Sabir Shah as the chief minister and again in 1997 with Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan as the chief executive of the province. After that it remained restricted to the Hazara Division.
But this time, with Amir Muqam becoming the president of the provincial PML-N, huge funds have been doled out from the centre to make inroads into the Malakand Division and other parts of the province, including the Peshawar valley, so PML-N is also likely to get more seats in the 2018 election – with their leadership even optimistic about forming the next government in KP.
After 1988, the Pakistan Peoples Party ruled the province in 1988-90 with Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao as chief minister and again in 1994-96 with Aftab Sherpao. In 2008, the party was part of the ANP-PPP coalition government. But the PPP was completely wiped out like ANP in 2013, securing only five seats and ANP winning only four. Internal bickering within the PPP leadership and differences with the central command has further worsened the situation for it in the KP province and it’s unlikely to perform any miracles in the 2018 polls.
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has made stormy visits to the province in the recent past and party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari has attempted damage-control measures to unite disgruntled ‘jiyalas’, but it has not proved very fruitful so far. Many believe the only remedy to reunite and strengthen the PPP in KP, would be for Asif Ali Zardari to field Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa as candidates in KP, as well as in their strongholds in Sindh, as the popular notion among ‘jiyalas’ is that the PPP can be united only under the heirs of Benazir Bhutto.
The southern districts have always been a stronghold of JUI Fazlur Rehman group and the trend is likely to prevail in 2018 as well. The voters in southern KP have always responded well to the JUI-F.
In 2008, when the MMA was wiped out from the rest of the province, the JUI-F still won six out of 18 seats in the southern districts. In 2013, the PTI also outclassed almost all the political parties and the JUI-F increased its seats in the southern districts from six to nine. Even if the JUI-F goes it alone, or as part of the MMA, it would not be an easy contender to defeat, as Maulana Fazlur Rehman, being a coalition partner of the PML-N in the centre, has managed to bring in huge funds from the federal government for southern KP as well as a good share in CPEC projects.
The PTI is still the peoples’ favourite, but if it wants to retain KP for a second consecutive term, it would have to move out from the Peshawar valley cluster to the southern districts to counter the MMA.
The party also has to make some inroads in the Hazara division to try and entice away some more seats from the PML-N stronghold. Imran Khan would also have to use his full power to not only retain the northern cluster seats, but to try and bag a few extra as well.
The most important factor would still be FATA; if the PTI or any other party can gain a decisive gain there, it would nevertheless be the next ruler of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, if the FATA members have voting rights too. But if PTI wins in the centre and retains its 2013 position in the KP, it will easily install its CM for a second consecutive term. But if it can’t perform well in the centre, a split mandate can swing the balance towards any party, as could have happened in 2013 when the JUI-F and PML-N considered fighting to form a coalition government by including the QWP, JI, the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad, the PPP and the ANP to get enough seats. The idea could not materialise, or might have been dropped by the PML-N then, but it’s unlikely that it would give another chance to the PTI in 2018.
A split mandate in the KP would lead to a very interesting situation. The PTI has already ousted QWP twice from the government, the JI would be going to the MMA camp, the ANP and JUI-F have never trusted Imran Khan’s leadership, while the PPP, even if it wins a few seats in KP, remains undecided which way it would go.
The PTI would have a do or die situation on its hands to secure a majority if it wants to rule KP again.
If the PTI suffers a defeat in the 2018 election, the second option of government, appears to be PML-N and MMA together on top. The ANP might also join them, while Aftab Sherpao’s QWP would also like to join that camp after being ditched twice by the PTI, first on corruption charges and the second time by not supporting the PTI on the Panama Papers case.
The JUI-F appears to be the leading player in the MMA and has already dealt its cards. Rumours are ripe in town that the JUI-F had agreed to the FATA merger in KP by demanding the governorship of the province in the next term. Hypothetically, if the PML-N wins in the centre in the upcoming general election, and also does well in KP, it would need the MMA’s support for government formation under Amir Muqam, which is likely the PML-N plan. In that case, the MMA would also get its share in the government, while the JUI-F would get the plum post of the Governor as well.
The second theory that is making the rounds is that the MMA can also repeat the 2002 miracle, but it has to outclass PTI besides others and it may not be an easy ride. However, cynics believe it’s written on the wall that if the PTI wants to rule the KP again, it has to fly solo; there are no political friends around in 2018 for alliances with Imran Khan. The independents, like always, would also be very crucial in deciding the future of politics in the post 2018 election scenario.