The fight for Khyber

The first phase of local government elections in KP has been a major setback for the ruling PTI. Will the second phase be any different?

The fight for Khyber

The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), serving a second consecutive term in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial government, is vibrantly preparing to regain its diminishing support in the KP’s second phase of local government elections after suffering a setback in the first phase at the hands of its arch rival Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI-F) flanked by Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz in the province.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose government is under constant pressure on the issues of price-hike and governance, still does not believe that the economic issues damaged his party’s popularity in KP, a PTI stronghold. Soon after the results became available for the first phase of the local government elections, he said that a wrong distribution of party tickets had led to the PTI defeat in several districts, and that he would personally supervise the ticket allocations for the second round. Contrary to Khan’s claim, a party stalwart admitted during an informal discussion that two issues, price-hike and blind trust in leaders like Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur, were the key factors behind the PTI’s defeat in its backyard, even in Peshawar where it had bagged almost all seats in the 2018 elections for the National and Provincial Assemblies.

Steps taken by the PTI leaders since then show that they are unnerved, apprehensive and desperate to regain lost ground in the second phase of the elections.

In the first phase, the elections were held in Peshawar, Nowshera, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Kohat, Karak, Hangu, Bannu, Laki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, Haripur, Buner, Mohmand, Bajaur and Khyber.

The second phase elections, in the remaining 17 districts, were scheduled for January 19. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan has rescheduled the elections for March 27 on account of cold weather conditions. It has, however, rejected the government’s request to extend the date till May 2022. The new schedule for the second phase of the local government election was issued after a hearing on a petition by PML-N’s Murtaza Javed Abbasi, who had requested the Election Commission of Pakistan to defer the polls in cold areas of the province because of heavy snowfall during January.

The KP chief secretary had pleaded for postponing the polls till May but the ECP turned down his request.

The postponement request may have been a tactic to gain the PTI some time to address some of the grievances of the people in the province.

The second phase of election will be held in Chitral, Malakand, Lower Dir, Upper Dir, Shangla, Swat, Abbottabad, Battagram, Lower Kohistan, Mansehra, Torghar, Kolai Palas, Upper Kohistan, Aurakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

Another step taken by the prime minister in the wake of the local government elections loss in the KP, has been to replace top office bearers of his party’s provincial organisations. He has appointed tried and tested Pervez Khattak, the defence minister and former KP chief minister as president of the KP chapter. Khattak has the well-earned reputation of a good wheeler-dealer in politics.

The third step has been the announcement of some mega development projects in the KP. PM Khan is also keen to ensure rapid distribution of health cards among the people of these areas. He is also trying to appease the unhappy leaders and voters of the PTI. The task has been assigned to Pervez Khattak.

The opposition parties, mainly the JUI-F and the PML-N, are also evolving their strategies to gain maximum advantage from the situation. PML-N stalwart Sardar Yousaf says that the PML-N has supported the JUI-F candidates in various districts in the first phase due to which the JUI-F emerged as the leading party in KP’s local government elections. He says that the cooperation will continue and that the PML-N will win a majority of seats in Hazara and Malakand divisions.

Traditionally, the PML-has N enjoyed solid support in Abbottabad, Mansehra, Lower and Upper Kohistan. The PTI has had a good support-base in Shangla, Battagram and Swat. The JUI-F has strong and deep-rooted influence in Chitral, Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Kurram. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Awami National Party (ANP) have some pockets of support in Malakand and can gain from seat adjustments with the JUI-F and the PML-N in some areas.

In South and North Waziristan, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) cannot be ignored. It won two National Assembly seats from there in the 2018 general election. The PTM also enjoys good ties with the PPP. The PPP can thus cobble a tacit alliance with the PTM in these areas.

Aftab Sherpao’s Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) supported the JUI-F and the PML-N in various districts. It will also try to get its share as a component of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The Jamaat-i-Islami, once a strong political entity in the KP, is also struggling to regain its support. It may go for seat adjustments with the PTI, the JUI-F and the PML-N in several areas.

The second phase of the local government election in the KP is bound to be a nerve-wracking contest for the ruling PTI and the opposition PDM alike.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

The fight for Khyber