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District profile: The situation in Khyber and its changing dynamics

Updated July 10, 2018

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IN this file photo from 2016, Haji Shahji Gul addresses a public gathering at a government-run school in Landi Kotal. Mr Gul’s position is overly reliant on his personal struggle of ‘liberating’ the tribal areas, and getting rid of the Frontier Crimes Regulation.
IN this file photo from 2016, Haji Shahji Gul addresses a public gathering at a government-run school in Landi Kotal. Mr Gul’s position is overly reliant on his personal struggle of ‘liberating’ the tribal areas, and getting rid of the Frontier Crimes Regulation.

The election campaign in the two National Assembly (NA) constituencies of the Khyber tribal district are vividly distinct in their atmospheres. The environment in NA-43 (Jamrud-cum-Landi Kotal) is one of full-blown campaigning that gives a festive look to the area as candidates try to outdo each other before the polls in late July. NA-44 (Bara), on the other hand, has what one would call a ‘dull’ run-up to the elections. The response of the voters could be better in the area to say the least.

Eighteen candidates are in the run for NA-43, while 41 aspirants are trying their luck in NA-44. Most of them are independents — several of them are young and new to electoral politics. Former members of the NA — and political heavyweights — from both constituencies Haji Shahji Gul and Nasir Khan are also contesting the elections.

There are banners in all shapes, sizes and colours all along the 33-kilometre Peshawar-Landi Kotal road, as the election campaign kicks off following a brief pause in the holy month of Ramazan. The voters, too, seem to be eager to participate in the rallies of their chosen leaders, which has resulted in a shift in the dynamics of traditional campaigning. Tribal chiefs — instead of relying purely on their social status, and outreach to their clans — are trying to talk to the voters themselves.

In NA-43, the independent, Shahji Gul’s position is overly reliant on his personal struggle of ‘liberating the tribal areas, and getting rid of the Frontier Crimes Regulation,’ while his rival Allama Noorul Haq Qadri of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has claimed that he wants to ‘improve’ the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) reforms, instead of openly supporting the merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Qadri had lost the 2013 elections to Shahji Gul by 10,000 votes. The two were allies in the past, but parted ways prior to the 2013 elections when they clashed over nominations to the Senate — both wanted their brothers in the upper house of parliament.

Major political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Awami National Party, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal all have their candidates in both constituencies, but only the PTI can claim having local support. The other parties suffer from organisational weaknesses that have not allowed them to capture the electorate. The JUI-F and the JI have further weakened their alliance over their conflicting views on the Fata merger.

Most political observers expect a close contest between Shahji Gul and Qadri, with both beginning their campaigns aggressively albeit using different strategies. The former has relied on his personal contacts and sway over the voters, while the latter has banked on the momentum of his party — the PTI — and his spiritual followers.

However, the constituency is not without controversy. The situation is a bit discouraging as candidates had to acquire prior permission from the local administration for holding rallies and meetings. Shermat Khan, a rookie in the political scene, is running in the polls as well, and is considered a potential spoiler of the election. He is being supported by the ‘peace committee’ and has been given a free hand in campaigning for votes, while his opponents have had to deal with several problems. The committee controls the informal border crossing points into Afghanistan, which is mostly used for transporting smuggled goods.

Political observers in the area do however believe that residents of the constituencies have become more independent, and they take their right to vote far more seriously than in the past. “We look forward to having representation in the KP assembly with prospects to one day have a chief minister from our constituencies,” said Muntazir Afridi, a local resident.

The return of internally displaced persons to Bara has also helped the campaign, as party workers no longer have to travel to camps outside of their districts to request the people to vote as they had to in 2013.

A former activist of the Khyber Students Federation, Sadeeq Khan, argued that people in Bara are now far more concerned about the provisions of basic resources, such as the availability of drinking water and electricity, than following the orders of the tribal chiefs. “Things have changed,” he argued, but did contend that the merger of Fata with KP is not going to be a selling point in the polls as the people have other “priorities and worries” to think about.

The constituency NA-44 is wide open for all candidates, as Nasir Khan, business tycoon Haji Maroof, independent Hameedullah Jan, PTI’s Iqbal Afridi and JI’s Shah Faisal will have a tough race. In the previous elections, Nasir Khan edged out his close rivals, including Iqbal Afridi, by securing just 4,135 votes. The turnout was extremely low in the 2013 elections. However, the security situation has improved significantly in the last ten years and candidates are hopeful that the turnout will improve in July. The same is true of the Tirah valley, where it was almost impossible to go during the last two elections. The situation there has now improved to the point where candidates can openly campaign for votes and travel through the valley to gather support.

Voters in the NA-44 constituency though do not seem overly enthusiastic. “The attitude of the people here is almost indifferent. Workers have now decided to go door-to-door asking people to vote,” said a supporter of an independent candidate.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018

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