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A woman casts her vote at a polling station, June 26, 2011. — Photo by AFP/File

PESHAWAR: The bewildering electoral map of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the subject of more than usual interest ahead of the next general election.

The rise of the PTI; the importance of the province’s 35 directly elected seats in the National Assembly in an era of coalition politics; the thrust and pull of Pashtun nationalism and religious conservatism; the role of the establishment; and the importance of a 124-member provincial assembly on the frontline of the fight against the Taliban — the political configuration in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is shaped by a dizzying array of factors.

“Treating KP as a uniform province and predicting the outcome of elections based on that is foolish,” according to Hasan Khan, the former director of Khyber News TV. “There are trends but it’s less about electoral decisions at the centre than about regional factors.”

The bare numbers hint at a province politically divided: of the 35 directly elected National Assembly seats in 2008, the ANP won 10, the PPP 9, the two PMLs 11, and the MMA sans the Jamaat-i-Islami won 4.

Now, the ANP and the PPP are attempting to defend their turf against an onslaught of factors and forces: the woes of incumbency, the myriad tales of corruption, divided leaderships and the rise of political challengers who were absent or weak in 2008.

Complicating their efforts to maintain the status quo are the highly localised drivers of politics in the province’s four major regions: the seven southern districts from Kohat to DI Khan; the Peshawar valley; Malakand/Swat; and the Hazara region.

“The five districts of the Peshawar valley — Swabi, Mardan, Charsadda, Nowshera and Peshawar — are the most politicised and perhaps less fluid,” Hasan Khan explained. “Everywhere else it will be about local alliances on particular seats between the various parties.”

ANP tarnished

The pervasive tales of corruption at the highest levels of the ANP have so tarnished its reputation that supporters fear the party will haemorrhage votes. While money has become an integral part of politics across Pakistan, the towering legacy of Bacha Khan has made it especially hard for some supporters to accept that money has soiled his descendants and the party.

“The ANP has institutionalised corruption. Every job, every posting, every contract, there is a price that has to be paid and everyone knows whose pockets the money is going in,” said Azam Hayat, the former vice chancellor of Peshawar University and an ANP supporter. “People are sick of it.”

Afrasiab Khattak, an ANP senator and one of Asfandyar Wali’s most trusted lieutenants, painted a different picture, “People have said before that the ANP is dead and it always bounces back. The party has worked hard and brought many benefits — schools, roads, colleges — to many areas.”

Khattak added that the party has tried to break new electoral ground: “The traditional base of the ANP has been the Peshawar valley and some adjoining areas to the north. We had virtually no presence in the southern districts. Now we have brought candidates on board there and even in the Hazara region.”

The ANP’s strategy appears to be to make up expected losses in traditional strongholds by picking up seats in other parts of the province through a combination of patronage, development funds and inducting strong candidates.

In addition, party leaders hint that the focus at the next election will be more on provincial assembly seats than national seats.

While the party’s manoeuvring will not paper over all the cracks, the party may yet survive as a major provincial player come election time. “People will still vote for the ANP,” the disgruntled Azam Hayat said. “I’ll vote for them too. The turnout for ANP will be low but it won’t disappear. We have no choice.”

PTI in disarray

Until recent months, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf was considered a strong contender in the province as incumbency hurt the established parties and the PTI’s anti-incumbency, anti-war on terror platform resonated with the Pashtun voter.

But two factors have cast a dark cloud over the party’s electoral prospects: infighting in the absence of a centrally endorsed provincial leadership and the PTI’s reluctance to enter an electoral alliance with other parties.

“The PTI doesn’t need an opposition. They’re doing a good enough job of self-destructing,” said Shamim Shahid, a Peshawar-based journalist. “Four candidates are vying for the provincial presidency and it’s tearing the party apart. The PTI won’t get more than a handful of seats. An electoral alliance could be a game-changer but then that would also depend on the alliance on the other side.”

Masood Sharif Khattak, one of the contenders for the PTI’s provincial presidency, was candid: “The party is essentially rudderless. After the previous local-level machinery was dissolved, everyone is on their own. There is great support among the people but there is no leadership.”

Khattak suggested that the PTI may hold internal party elections “by the middle of next month” and thereafter some discipline could be restored.

The PTI’s rivals, though, believe culture and politics will prevent wounds from being healed quickly. An ANP leader said, “Our party elections (in 2011) created some problems that we still have to tend to. People don’t forget here and the losers will hold a grudge.”

Within the PTI, the problem is compounded by the rivalry between the old guard and the so-called electables.

A divided PPP

Disarray in the provincial leadership of the PPP has left the party uncertain and fearful of its electoral prospects. On Oct 2, Anwar Saifullah of the influential Saifullah family from Lakki Marwat was appointed the fourth provincial president in the past four years.

Saifullah will have to quickly lash together a party torn by infighting and also answer questions about his suitability for the job given the perception that his appointment owes more to his closeness to President Zardari than his own political standing.

Azam Afridi, a PPP leader in Peshawar, admitted the provincial party leadership is divided but claimed talk of the PPP’s demise is overblown: “All that has been said about (internal divisions) is true. But as long as we have the spirit of BB and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP will always get votes. People in the party are angry, but we will win them back.”

The key to holding on to at least some seats for the PPP may lie elsewhere, though. As Nur Alam Khan, one of the two PPP MNAs from Peshawar, explained, “It’s less about the party than about families here. I will always support Arbab Alamgir (the other PPP MNA from Peshawar) and he will always support me.”

Small parties, big factors

While all eyes are on the high-profile parties, the elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa may ultimately be shaped by other parties. “When compared to 2008, the factors that will be in play at the next election are the PML-N, JI and the PTI,” according to Hasan Khan.

“The PTI won’t win much but it could be the difference between winning and losing for other candidates. Amir Muqam joining the PML-N has given it new strength not just in Shangla but adjoining areas too. And don’t forget the JI boycotted in 2008 and is a force in some constituencies,” Khan explained.

The JUI-F, a force in the southern districts, is also seen as an important contender. It has a presence in the Peshawar valley and is also making inroads in constituencies further north.

“Don’t forget Maulana (Fazlur Rehman) sahib,” Khan said, “He knows how to play his cards well and is flexible enough to cut deals with anyone.”

Which is perhaps why everyone is tempering their hopes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. An ANP leader said of the post-election scenario, “It will be much like it is now. Lots of parties winning a few seats. We hope to come out ahead.”