Part - II
In the early years of the PTI’s tenure in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and following another public gaffe by Shaukat Yousafzai and Shah Farman, I asked a PTI insider why people like himself and the more articulate PTI workers did not contest the 2013 elections instead of their more incompetent MPAs.
His reply was telling: “We thought we were not right for street-level politics and needed someone with more experience”. In retrospect, this decision has pushed the KP wing of the party into a sorry state today. In 2013, few, if any, of their MPAs won on the basis of any real political ability. Opportunity knocked and many of those who sacrificed the most, complained about the noise.
Running parallel to this is the PTI’s central leadership, which views KP as a consolation prize after losing the 2013 general election. It is more interested in using the province as a platform to capture Islamabad. These frequent distractions – whether in the form of dharnas or boycotts – distracted and paralysed the party’s decision-making as many leaders felt that snap elections were imminent.
Four key factors have saved the party from a even greater debacle. The first is the improvement in security. The importance of this factor cannot be understated. The situation across the province was dire prior to 2014. Attacks were merciless and relentless. Schools, bazaars, workplaces and even funerals were not safe. This led to an unprecedented exodus of talent and cash from the province. And the blame was – rightly or wrongly – largely placed at the feet of the ruling ANP-PPP leadership.
The second factor has been the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees from the province since the APS attack. They have been a convenient scapegoat for many of the problems that the province has faced over the years. While Imran Khan has been critical of the move, it has resulted in short-term benefits for locals. Instead, it has led to an increase in the cost of labour and a decrease in property rents and prices. The humanitarian tragedy of deporting tens of thousands of people who have now lived in the province for two decades has received little public sympathy.
The third factor involves the perception that reforms are going ahead. This engagement has been positive. There has been an improvement in staff attendance in schools and hospitals. Complaints are more swiftly addressed and attempts at rolling back some reforms have been resisted. This has repeated dividends in initiatives like healthcare reform and the Billion Tree Tsunami. It has also meant that the crushingly slow pace of launching projects has been forgiven by many because it appears as if something has been done. This is despite the countless attempts made to use clever media campaigns to mask matters of substance. For instance, the conflict of interest bill has been watered down heavily, the accountability campaign has stalled entirely, the depoliticisation of the police has not seen any dramatic reforms and the accountability of top officers remains dubious. Discretionary spending has remained inequitable. It largely focuses on the home districts of the chief minister, the provincial assembly speaker and the education minister instead of focusing on areas of known deprivation.
The final factor is Imran Khan. Despite the issues attributed to the PTI leadership, he remains a popular symbol. Voters attribute the failings of his party leadership to the individuals who are part of his party and not to him. Imran Khan’s ability to ensure the victory of his chosen candidates has weakened as well. But there is no denying his ability to draw a crowd in any part of the province and make a weak candidate undeservingly competitive.
At the ground level, there is no sense in stirring anti-government sentiments. At the same time, there is also no sense in the mass wave of support in favour of the PTI. This suggests that it will eventually comes down to the strength of individual candidates and their ability or inability to attract a large crowd and pull leaders to bolster their votes. By that standard, the PTI will struggle. There have been few, if any, competent or charismatic leaders from the PTI who have come to the forefront in KP. Most of them have only been able to win by using Imran Khan’s name and do not deserve to be re-elected.
The PTI’s coalition partners are struggling as well. The JI, under Sirajul Haq, has become lacklustre. Having lost its once-famed intellectual moorings, it has now been reduced to a party nationally associated with its student wings. It is now a constituency-level party limited to Dir and Buner that is making a desperate bid to hold on to electoral relevance. If it is given a choice, the JI would prefer the revival of the MMA in some form or the other.
The QWP remains the closest thing to a party of electables. It is kept together by the charisma of one of those rare, consistent election winners, Aftab Sherpao. The Sherpao- PTI combination has always come through as an odd couple. While his adeptness can ensure some wins, it is unlikely that he will able to win a similar number of seats again. And even if he were to achieve that, there are no clear indications that he would feel beholden to reach out to the PTI. On the other hand, Sherpao, a former PPP leader, is still dreaming of the day that he will merge his faction back with the PPP.
Taking into account the PTI’s focus on Punjab and winning Islamabad, defeat seems inevitable. The question is whether it will be a respectable defeat or a rout.
To be continued
The writer is the founder of the website: www.qissa-khwani.com