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FLAGS and posters of different political parties, including the Awami National Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, on display around Circular Road as parties start preparing for the 2018 polls. —Shahbaz Butt/White Star
FLAGS and posters of different political parties, including the Awami National Party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, on display around Circular Road as parties start preparing for the 2018 polls. —Shahbaz Butt/White Star

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has had a unique electoral history, at least since 2002, when a so-called ‘wave’ brought the Muttahida Majlist-i-Amal (MMA) into power, followed by the Awami National Party (ANP) and then the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Will there be yet another ‘wave’? And if so, whose ‘wave’ is it going to be? While it may still be early to make an electoral forecast, but if data from the previous elections is any indication of things to come, the MMA and the PTI may find themselves in a face-off in KP, in perhaps one of the most charged electoral battles thus far.

Of the total 5,476,001 votes polled in the 2013 election, the PTI received 1,040,344 votes from KP, making it the largest political party in the province — with 34 seats.

Former KP chief minister Pervez Khattak deserves credit for moving swiftly after the election to cobble up a coalition comprising the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Qaumi Watan Party, the Awami Jamhouri Ittehad Pakistan and some independents. Had he not done that, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) — with 13 seats — could have roped in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) 12 lawmakers and JI’s seven MPAs to form a coalition government with other small parties in the KP Assembly. It was an opportunity denied and an opportunity seized. But that was then. What’s next?

Based on statistical data, although the two parties contested elections from their respective platforms and fielded candidates against each other, the JUI-F and the JI together polled 1,116,395 votes in the 2013 elections.

As a percentage, the two right-wing parties received 20.38pc votes against the PTI’s 18.99pc. The size of the two parties’ total vote bank may just be a notch better than the PTI’s, but in absolute terms, if Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Sirajul Haq joined hands in 2013, even the so-called ‘wave’ would not have helped Imran Khan’s party much in KP.

The statistics are both revealing and shocking. If the two parties had fielded joint candidates in 2013, their alliance would have won 12 more seats than what they were able to clinch in their individual capacity. This would have taken their tally of total seats in the KP Assembly to 32, just two seats short of the PTI’s.

In fact, in some constituencies, the winning margin between the two right-wing parties and the PTI was so narrow that it could potentially create problems for the PTI in the 2018 elections. The coming together of the JUI-F and the JI, in addition to other small religious groups, under the umbrella of the MMA, should therefore be alarming for the PTI.

Interestingly though, the conglomerate of religious parties received 26.32pc of the total votes cast in 2002, compared to the 20.38pc votes won by the two parties in 2013, showing a decline of 5.9 percentage point in their vote bank.

But considering that the voters’ turn-out in KP had shown an improvement in 2013 — from 34.02pc in 2002 to 44.64pc in 2013 — the polling data reveals that the two parties had not only retained their vote bank but also shown a marginal increase, enough to cause an upset against the PTI, the ‘wave’ notwithstanding.

Both sides are aware of their strengths and vulnerabilities. The JUI-F, having tried and failed in convincing former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to help it topple the PTI government, came to the realisation that it needed to revive the defunct MMA to take a real aim at the citadel in Peshawar.

Being the bigger vote-getter, the wily Fazlur Rehman knows that his party is the senior most partner of the five-party religious alliance. The 2013 election results are a testament to this. Of the total votes polled by the JUI-F and the JI combined, the JUI-F received 713,989 votes while the JI received 402,406 votes.

The JI appears to be in a sorry state. The party which used to have a nationwide electoral presence at some point sees its presence largely reduced to districts in Upper and Lower Dir, with the PTI slowly encroaching on its northern stronghold. In fact, the situation is so grim that some senior party leaders grimly liken Dir to Granada, the last Muslim citadel in Spain to surrender to the invading Ferdinand II and Isabella I forces in 1492.

Nowhere in the past has the JI been more aware of the existential threat to its survival on the electoral front than it is now. It is this concern which has driven its party leadership to embrace the burly Maulana Fazlur Rehman again, barely a month before the end of its term as a junior coalition partner with the PTI.

For some reason, the PTI did not show interest in taking the JI along, despite overtures by the latter. This, according to a senior PTI figure, may have to do with Imran Khan’s personal discomfort and uneasiness in working with Sirajul Haq.

Having abandoned the idea of forming an alliance with the JI, the PTI turned to the “father of the Taliban”, the octogenarian Maulana Samiul Haq to counter the MMA. The Rs557 million dole-outs by Mr Khattak to the maulana’s sprawling madrassah in Akora Khattak were aimed at keeping him in good humour and to curry political favour.

Whether this will or could help the PTI is open to question. Samiul Haq’s influence is largely limited to Nowshera district which may help Mr Khattak more in his own constituency than anywhere else, where the vote bank is scattered and too negligible to make a significant impact.

Having said this, the outcome of the 2018 elections for both sides will largely depend on a host of other factors including seat adjustments. The MMA — more so the JUI-F and the JI — have yet to work out a seat adjustment formula. The PTI is facing the more formidable challenge of dealing with dissent within to be able to run an effective campaign.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2018