Farooq Dawood

The ‘kingmaker’ of KP politics

The Peshawar valley and central KP is the key that can open doors of power for those who succeed in winning over voters.
Published February 1, 2024

A POPULAR axiom is that the road to the chief minister’s house passes through central Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which comprises Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi, Nowshera and Charsadda.

The region is a political juggernaut, as 33 of the total 115 seats in the KP Assembly lie in the region. The Peshawar valley and its surrounding districts are also considered a barometer to gauge the direction of political winds in the province, since it has a 28pc share in KP assembly seats.

In terms of other demographic metrics, central KP is the most populous, industrialised and prosperous region of the province, with one-fourth — 13 million — of the province’s 40.85m residents living here, according to the 2023 census.

 Farooq Dawood
Farooq Dawood

Despite being a political hegemon, central KP has proved to be fickle in terms of which party dominated the region to form the government.

Comprising the major chunk of national and provincial assembly seats, the Peshawar valley and central KP is the key that can open doors of power for those who succeed in winning over voters

In 2002, it ushered in the religious Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) alliance into power. Subsequently, it also paved the way for the first-ever Awami National Party (ANP) chief minister, Ameer Haider Hoti, in 2008. In 2013, the region turned PTI’s ‘Naya Pakistan’ slogan into a reality, with the party taking power in Peshawar.

However, in 2018, the region defied its established political characteristic of not re-electing the same party, with PTI sweeping the region and storming back into the government.

Prominent political families like the Arbabs and Bilours of Peshawar, the Walis and Sherpaos of Charsadda, the Khattaks of Nowshera, the Hotis of Mardan and the Tarakais of Swabi all call central KP their home, and have dominated politics here for the past several decades.

The ‘fickle’ electorate

The region has witnessed several political ups and downs and throughout recent history, it has been a launch-pad towards power for different political parties.

In the general elections of 1988, the central region of what was then called the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) had eight National Assembly and 27 provincial assembly seats. The Peoples Party and the Muslim League were the dominant players, with ANP as a “junior partner” in the province’s politics.

In the following decade, ANP and PPP came to dominate the region’s political scene, with the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) and PML having a limited role.

Voters in KP are thought to be ‘independent’, but this is not actually the case. When the economy is based on [rent-seeking] and militancy, it changes society’s economic realities and this has resulted in changes to voting patterns | Dr Mohammad Shakeel, NUML professor

In his PhD dissertation titled Electoral Politics in NWFP, 1988-1997, Dr Mohammad Shakeel, a professor at Islamabad’s National University of Modern Languages (NUML), wrote that electoral contests for National Assembly seats from 1988-1999 revolved around ANP and PPP candidates.

In the 1988 National Assembly election, PPP won four seats while ANP won two. In 1990, ANP won six seats; in 1993, PPP won five out of eight central NWFP seats. In 1997, ANP swept the region, winning all eight National Assembly seats.

In the 1988 and 1990 elections, IJI won none and one seat, respectively. In 1993 and 1997, the PML-N failed to win a single seat from central NWFP.

In the same period, noted Dr Shakeel, PPP won 13 provincial assembly seats in 1988 and two in 1990 when it was in coalition with the Pakistan Democratic Alliance. It won 10 seats in 1993 and one seat in 1997 with the coalition of PML-J — of former prime minister Mohammed Khan Junejo — out of 27 seats from central NWFP.

ANP secured 11 seats from the region in 1988, 18 in 1990, 16 in 1993, and 21 in 1997.

IJI won two seats in 1988 and six in the 1990 elections, while PML-N, which couldn’t win a single seat in 1993, secured only four seats in the 1997 election.

Even at that time, the voting behaviour in central NWFP remained relatively fluid, making it difficult to comment on any party having a stronghold in the region, added Dr Shakeel.

2002: The year of MMA

In the 2002 elections, held with former dictator retired Gen Pervez Musharraf at the helm, the region’s political tide created a new current, catapulting the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) — an alliance of religio-political parties — into power.

The alliance benefitted from the public reaction against the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and it swept the region to form a government in NWFP.

So comprehensive was their victory that they won all four NA seats from Peshawar, two from Nowshera, three from Mardan, two from Swabi and one out of two from Charsadda. Even ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan lost his seat, and only Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao managed to wrest a seat away from MMA, thanks to an adjustment with the religious alliance.

In the provincial assembly, the alliance won seven out of 11 seats from Peshawar. In Nowshera, MMA only managed to win a single seat, while two went to PPP and one each to ANP and PPP-Sherpao (PPP-S). MMA swept polls in Mardan and won seven out of eight provincial assembly seats, with PPP bagging the sole remaining seat. In Swabi, the group managed to win two seats, with ANP securing the remaining three.

2008: MMA out, ANP in

In 2008, a new victor emerged from the ruins of its predecessors in central NWFP to form government in the province. The elections that year were held at a time when the province was facing the worst flare-up of terrorist attacks.

ANP, on the back of its robust stance against militancy, secured a comprehensive win in this region and formed a government in coalition with the PPP. Out of 13 NA seats in the area, ANP won six while PPP won four, and JUI-F, PPP-S, and an independent managed to win a seat each.

The Asfand Yar Wali-led party won nine out of 11 provincial assembly seats from Peshawar, three seats from Nowshera, two from Charsadda, three from Mardan and four from Swabi.

The 2018 polls were an epochal event, swept by the PTI for a second consecutive time, allowing it to form a government in a province infamous for never electing the same party twice

2013: The rise of PTI

Continuing with its tradition of not allowing anyone to get a taste of power more than once, ANP was voted out of central KP — the name being officially changed in 2010 — and voters stood behind a relative underdog: Imran Khan’s PTI.

The party swept NA polls in the region, winning nine out of 13 seats. PPP-Sherpao, JUI-F, ANP and Awami Jamhoori Ittehad (AJIP) won a seat each.

The PTI also swept provincial assembly elections in Peshawar and won 10 out of 11 seats. In Nowshera and Mardan, it won five seats each. In Charsadda, the party trailed behind Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) or Mr Sherpao, which won four out of six provincial assembly seats, leaving PTI with only one seat from the district. In Swabi, the Tarakai clan’s AJIP won two seats and later merged with the PTI.

2018: A shocking result

The general elections of 2018 were an epochal event in the electoral history of the province and the region. PTI swept the polls for a second consecutive time and formed the government in a province infamous for never electing the same party twice.

They also won 12 out of 13 NA seats from central KP. Only ANP’s Mr Hoti withstood the brunt of the “tsunami” and managed to hold onto his seat from Mardan. All the other behemoths, like the Sherpaos and the Bilours, were swept away and lost their seats to PTI candidates.

In the provincial assembly, PTI won 12 out of 14 seats from Peshawar, eight from Mardan, four from Charsadda, and all five seats from Swabi and Nowshera.

Landscape in 2024

The election of Feb 8 has all the signs of a riveting contest with many parties, all with their fair share of issues, battling for a stake in the province.

A fragmented PTI is in the fray, with PTI-Parliamentarians, a faction carved out of it and led by former CM Pervaiz Khattak, also wrestling for a share of power. Established parties like ANP, QWP, JUI-F, JI and PML-N also want to regain their lost ground.

Peshawar: On Peshawar’s NA-28 seat, a tough contest is expected between JUI-F’s Noor Alam Khan, PTI’s Sajid Nawaz, PPP Kiramatullah Chagarmati and ANP’s Mohammad Fayyaz Khan. Mr Alam, who deserted PTI in the lead-up to the no-confidence motion against former PM Imran Khan, twice won this seat on PPP and PTI tickets in 2008 and 2018, respectively, while in 2013, Mr Nawaz won the seat.

In NA-29, the constituency comprising Chamkani, parts of Badaber and Shah Alam tehsils on the city’s outskirts, two-time MNA Arbab Amir Ayub is contesting the election on PTI’s ticket against ANP’s Saqibullah Khan Chamkani. Mr Ayub won this seat in the 2017 by-election and 2018 elections.

Similarly, for NA-30 Peshawar-III, PTI Nasir Khan Musazai is contesting the election on JUI-F’s ticket after deserting PTI. He is up against Shandana Gulzar, a former PTI MNA, on a reserved seat. Besides, JI’s former provincial minister Kashif Azam, ANP’s Arbab Zain Umar and PPP’s Misbahuddin are also contesting the seat.

NA-31, which comprises the city’s upscale localities like Hayatabad, University Town and Peshawar University, will have 21 candidates on the ballot paper. Former PPP federal minister Arbab Alamgir Khan Khalil, former PTI MNA Sher Ali Arbab, ANP Syed Haroon Shah, and JUI-F’s Mohammad Saeed Jan are in the fray for this seat. Mr Arbab won this seat in 2018.

NA-32, previously NA-1, used to be considered ANP’s safe constituency with Ghulam Ahmed Bilour winning the seat several times. However, in 2018, Mr Bilour lost to PTI’s Haji Shaukat Ali. This time, Mr Bilour will face former PTI MPA Asif Khan, JUI-F’s Hussain Ahmed Madani and PPP’s Abidullah Khan.

Nowshera: From his hometown, Nowshera, the former CM, Mr Khattak, is contesting the election from one national and two provincial assembly seats. His son-in-law is contesting the election from another NA seat while both his sons are on the ballot papers for PA seats.

On NA-33, Mr Khattak is up against ANP’s Khan Pervez, PTI Syed Ahad Ali Shah, JUI-F’s Ijazul Haq, PPP Saleemullah Khan and JI’s Inayatur Rehman.

On NA-34, Dr Imran Khan, a two-time PTI MNA and Mr Khattak’s son-in-law, is contesting the election on the PTI-P ticket. Dr Khan will have to face a challenge from JUI-F Pervez Khan Khattak, ANP Mian Babar Shah Kakakhel and PPP Mohammad Idress Khattak.

Swabi: On NA-19, Swabi-I, former National Assembly speaker Asad Qaiser, is contesting the election as an independent candidate with PTI’s backing. Mr Qaiser, who won the seat in the last election, is facing JUI-F’s Maulana Fazal Ali, ANP Akhundzada Shahnawaz, and PPP Mohammad Bilal Khan Sherpao.

The election of NA-20, Swabi-II, will be an interesting contest, primarily due to the schisms in the Tarakai family, which has dominated the district’s politics since 2002. Usman Khan Tarakai, who has won the seat in the past three elections, is contesting on PPP’s ticket. His main challenger is his nephew, PTI’s Shahram Khan Tarakai.

Mr Usman previously defeated the ANP chief, Mr Asfandyar, in 2013 from the same constituency. PPP has entered into a seat adjustment with the PML-N on NA-20, where the latter will support Mr Usman in return for a provincial assembly seat from the district.

Mardan: Mardan is the province’s second-largest city and has three NA and eight provincial assembly seats. On NA-21, Mardan-I, the two-time ex-MNA of PTI, Mujahid Ali, is facing ANP’s Ahmed Ali Khan and JUI-F’s Azam Khan and JI Mardan emir Maulana Attaur Rehman.

In NA-22, Mardan-II former CM Mr Hoti is facing PTI’s Atif Khan, JUI-F’s Niyaz Ali, and 17 other candidates. Similarly, on NA-23, Mardan-III, former federal minister Ali Mohammad Khan of PTI is up against former MNA Ahmed Khan Bahadur of ANP and JUI-F’s Kaleem Khan Toru as main challengers.

Charsadda: On NA-24, Charsad­da-I, QWP chief Mr Sherpao, is contesting the elections after having previously won the seat in 2002, 2008 and 2013. He lost to the PTI Malik Anwar Taj in 2018. Mr Sherpao, who is eyeing a return to the NA, is again facing Mr Taj, who is contesting as a PTI-backed independent candidate. JUI-F’s Mufti Gohar Ali Shah, ANP Irfan Alam Khan and PPP Shazia Tehmash Khan are also on the ballot paper.

From NA-25, Charsadda-II, ANP’s KP chapter president, Aimal Wali Khan, is eyeing an electoral win after having lost the same seat to PTI’s Fazal Mohammad Khan in 2018. He will again face the challenge of Mr Fazal, besides JUI-F’s two-time MNA Maulana Gohar Shah, PPP’s Aftab Alam and QWP’s Qaiser Jamal.

The ‘independent’ voter

Dr Shakeel, who has done extensive research on the province’s electoral politics, told Dawn that it is widely believed that voters in KP are “independent”. But, he argued that this was not actually the case.

“When your economy is based on [rent-seeking] and militancy, it changes society’s economic relations, and this has resulted in changes to the province’s voting patterns.”

He explained that post-2002 election results in KP reflected this change due to the war on terror, which upended the province’s liberal political order.

The traditional social bonding has been weakened due to the onslaught of a neo-liberal economy and individualism together with a hybrid political model, which also explains the rise of PTI in KP, Dr Shakeel told Dawn.

He added that similar voting patterns were likely to continue in the absence of political dialogue and free will and choice of the electorate.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024