AT 79, Haji Ghulam Ahmad Bilour is the senior most parliamentarian from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A veteran of eight elections since 1988 and having won all but once, including the two times he lost but wrestled back his NA-1 (Peshawar) seat in the subsequent by-elections, he has seen it all — the highs and lows of politics and everything that comes with it.

His younger brother, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, was killed in a suicide bombing just months before the May 2013 elections. The elder Bilour, too, survived suicide bombing during the election campaign in April 2013. Seventeen people, including four policemen, had died in that attack.

“Our competition was not against the PTI. We were competing against the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan,” the diminutive ANP leader recalls. “Our workers couldn’t hoist their party’s red flags. Those were difficult, challenging times,” he reminisces.

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Age, the loss of his younger brother and his only son, Shabbir Ahmad Bilour, who was also killed outside a polling station in Peshawar in December 1997, and two spinal surgeries has taken its toll on the veteran politician and two-time federal minister. “I am an old man, my heart is old but my nerves are still young and strong,” he says with a smile.

But it will be his nerves and his experience as an old campaigner which will again be at test in what is now NA-31. The man, who has faced up the likes of Benazir Bhutto and Imran Khan, is now pitted against a new entrant into the PTI from the PPP — Haji Shaukat Ali.

On the face of it, this shouldn’t be too difficult a contest for someone who has been in politics since 1970. But this northwestern province has seen so much electoral tumult since 2002 that even an old hand like Mr Bilour is cautious in making an educated guess.

And his reluctance is not without reasons. The US invasion of Afghanistan that led to the formation of the Pakistan Defence Council, helped by the then junta to stoke up anti-US sentiments by turning on the heat on the streets of then NWFP, resulted in the MMA winning a landslide in 2002.

The MMA’s five-year rule and the rise of militancy brought about another change at the hustings in 2008. The ANP together with the PPP formed a coalition government whose writ by the end of its term had shrunk to less than 30 per cent.

Under siege by militants all around the citadel of Peshawar, unable to deliver in terms of governance and bedevilled by the no-shutter-down rampant corruption, the secular Pashtun nationalist party was trounced in a shocking and humiliating defeat by a relatively new entrant into the electoral fray of KP — the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.

Stunned, the party leadership convened a meeting of its consultative committee in May 2013 to “consider the factors behind the electoral defeat of the party in general elections”. This was followed by a meeting of the party’s central executive committee, which in turn formed a Fact-Finding Committee to carry out an inquiry.

In his statement posted on the party’s website on August 31, 2013, the party head Asfandyar Wali Khan, while referring to the report of the FFC acknowledged “alienation” and “disconnect” between the party, the cadre and the government, caused largely due to “constraints on movements” because of security concerns.

“The workers also pointed out the lack of an effective accountability system in the party and the government,” he said in a tacit admission of allegations of corruption during the party’s stint in power. The FFC report was never made public.

Hounded by the militants and haunted by the charges of corruption, the party couldn’t really mobilise its voters. What made things even worse, was Mr Asfan­dyar’s absence from the election scene.

Mr Khan, who had survived a suicide bombing at his Walibagh hujra on October 2, 2008, relocated to Islamabad’s secured environment. So secretive was the party about his whereabouts that only a few of its leaders knew where he was.

His prolonged absence became the subject of taunts and ridicule, the effects of which continue to shadow the party and its leaders even today. Even now many party leaders privately concede that that is the singular most reason the dwindling morale amongst party workers.

But some ANP leaders insist that the party didn’t do all that bad despite facing risks and challenges, despite “the vicious propaganda campaign” by its opponents, as the FFC observed in its report.

In 2008, the ANP had received 578,408 votes of the total 3.3 million votes polled for the provincial assembly seats and went on to form a coalition government with the Pakistan Peoples Party. In 2013, the Pashtun nationalist party received 556,525 votes of the total 5.3m votes polled for the provincial assembly seats. Indeed some party candidates did better in 2013 in comparison with 2008.

The drop in its vote bank, however, was still marginal, 21,883, despite the twin challenges posed by the TTP and the PTI. Yet in the seat-number-game, its share in the PA fell from 33 seats in 2008 to just 4 in 2013. This was a huge fall.

Interestingly, the Qaumi Watan Party of Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, which had received 193,964 votes in the PA elections in 2013, yet it ended up bagging seven seats and ended up becoming a junior partner in the PTI-led government in KP.

Even the Jamaat-i-Islami polled fewer votes than the ANP in 2013, yet it also secured seven seats to share power with the PTI and QWP in the province.

The ANP’s loss at the hustings in 2013, say party leaders, was therefore, due to a host of factors, primarily among them were its candidates’ inability to run an effective campaign owing to the security threats and largely due to the PTI’s ability to mobilize and attract mostly new young generation voters.

This is true. The PTI received 1,039,719 votes in the PA elections in 2013: this is twice as many votes as the ANP’s.

This time, say the party leaders, they are better prepared. The party had begun the exercise of choosing candidates much earlier than any of its rivals and has done so by involving its local party units and councilors.

It has fielded 89 candidates for the PA, 20 among them are old-timers, 61 new entrants. For the NA, it has awarded tickets on 30 constituencies; among them are seven old-timers, while 23 are fresh candidates.

If the local bodies elections and the by-elections are any indications, the ANP may be able to regain some lost territory, yet bridging the yawning gap nearly half a million votes that had gone the PTI way in 2013, will indeed be a daunting job buy a lot will depend on voters’ turnout and the parties ability to bring out their voters.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2018