Pakistan General Election 2018: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa goes to polls under pall of violence, rallies see low turnout
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the third largest province of the country, is home to 15.32 million registered voters (25 percent higher than 2013).
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), 105.96 million voters will go to the polls in the forthcoming elections, which will be held both for the provincial and federal assemblies.
In the past three terms, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has won in Punjab, the Pakistan Peoples Party has won Sindh, and Balochistan has fallen into the hands of political forces linked to feudal elements and the establishment. However, voters of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (earlier North West Frontier Province) have kept changing their preferences. Political analysts attribute this to the 'political maturity' of voters in the Pashtun belt.
In the last election before the partition of the subcontinent, inhabitants of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa favoured Khudai Khidmatgars/Red Shirts, who were in an alliance with the Congress, against the PML-N. The Khudai Khidmatgars had not supported the idea of partition and stood in favour of a united country.
The Khudai Khidmatgars' indigenous and visionary movement gave the Pashtuns the ability to carry out non-violent forms of resistance, according to professor Fazal Rahim, ex-vice-chancellor of Bacha Khan University. Since then, the political understandings of Pashtuns has not changed, and the community has always stood firmly for progressive values, said Rahim.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the third largest province of the country, is home to 15.32 million voters (25 percent higher than 2013), 8.71 million of whom are male and 6.61 million female. Following the 25th constitutional amendment, the region bordering it to the east—Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)—has also merged with it. The earlier region of FATA had seven districts: South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Bajur and Kurram.
Trysts with religious fundamentalism
In the period after the death of General Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash, the country's politicians were not allowed to stabilise democracy. The late Benazir Bhutto became an icon in the country's history for breaking new ground, while Nawaz was then favoured by the establishment, like Imran Khan is said to be now.
Analysts termed the 1970 election as fair, transparent and independent. In the aftermath of these elections, Pakistan lost the region which is now Bangladesh. Since then, the country has not witnessed a strong democratic government in the Legislative assemblies.
Pakistan has remained under direct martial law for over three decades, and has been under indirect martial law for many more years. Due to this, democracy did not flourish in the country in the same way as it did in neighbouring India. In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf ousted then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and announced elections only four years later in 2003.
In that year, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an alliance of religious parties, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal came to power, and promised to implement Sharia in the province. The government led by it banned music, dance, and even termed photos of models on billboards as 'vulgarity.' In neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan was at the front line of the war against terror being waged by the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces.
At the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa border, thousands of religious seminaries were established during the Afghan war to fight 'infidel communists.' Students of these seminaries played a vital role in the election process, and exploited anti-American sentiment of voters. When religion-based groups ruled in the province, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) began to make its presence felt, but no one cared. In 2008, voters rejected the religion-based group, as it strengthened unconstitutional forces and also because it did not fulfil its election promise of implementing Sharia. The Awami National Party, which is the legacy of the Khudai Khidmatgars, came to power. Subsequently, the TTP began launching brutal attacks on non-violent followers of Bacha Khan.
Violence a constant reality
The five years from 2008 to 2013 will be remembered as a black chapter in Pashtun history. Thousands of Pashtuns were killed in bombings and targetted killings in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the violence has still not stopped.
Ahead of the election, the killing spree has again started. In the last ten days, the people witnessed four suicide attacks: Three of them in the Pashtun belt and one in Balochistan. Ex-chief minister Akram Khan survived a suicide attack in Bannu district. Siraj Raisani, a nationalist Baloch leader, was targetted in Mastung, in a blast which killed 147 people. On 22 July, a suicide bomber killed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf candidate Isran Gandapur.
This violence appears to have led to fear among candidates, workers and voters, and has greatly reduced turnout at rallies. However, political analysts believe the blasts will not affect voter turnout.
Political leaders have criticised the failure of security agencies to provide a free environment during the elections, and said that the State has a responsibility to ensure security of citizens.
The Awami National Party, which has taken a stand against militancy, has borne heavy costs. ANP general secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain said, "Our policy against fundamentalism is the same as it was decades ago, and that is why we sided with anti-Taliban slogans”. Hussain further said that the party wants an inclusive and pluralistic society.
Due to this bold stance against the Taliban, Hussain even lost his lone son. Intelligence agencies, as well as the interior ministry, have often raised concerns about threats to his life.
In fact, such was the extent of violence in the region that residents of Peshawar would wake up every morning to sounds of blasts. On one morning, newspaper carried headlines saying that the previous day was peaceful and no blast was reported.
While the PTI, which is ruling in the province, has not managed to deliver on many of its promises, many youth still have faith in its slogan of 'change.'
In the upcoming election, whichever party wins the five districts of Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi, Charsaddah, and Nowshera, stands a good chance of winning the chief minister's seat.
Thus far, it is not clear what the outcome of the election may be. Historically, the districts in the southern region have favoured religious parties, whereas the towns in the northern region have favoured left-leaning parties. The ANP is hoping to make a comeback, and particularly seeking victories in Mardan and Swabi.
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