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JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. — File photo

DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Forty-three years ago, two rising political stars went head-to-head in the election for NW-13, then the sole National Assembly seat from this southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district.

Their names: Maulana Mufti Mahmood and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Mahmood, father of Fazlur Rehman, defeated Bhutto by a narrow margin and went on to become the president of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.

Forty-three years later, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and PPP will once again square off in what is now NA-24 (D.I. Khan) and NA-25 (D.I. Khan-cum-Tank).

At the last election, the parties shared the spoils: Fazlur Rehman was thumped in NA-24 by Faisal Karim Kundi but in NA-25, the JUI-F supremo’s brother Attaur Rehman won.

This time, though, the race is shaping up to be maulana vs everyone else — and everyone else is falling behind.

“Six months ago, JUI-F looked like it would just get one NA seat and one PK (provincial assembly) seat from D.I. Khan and Tank. The goal was to at least ensure Maulana (Fazlur Rehman) gets to the National Assembly,” said Fazlur Rehman, a D.I. Khan native who closely follows local politics.

Rehman — no relation to his namesake — continued: “But now, if it’s a crowded field, if there are many candidates, then the JUI-F will coast to victory. If there’s just one strong candidate around whom the anti-maulana vote rallies, then maulana will get a tough time.”

Kundi fails to deliver The story of the rise — again — of Fazlur Rehman and the JUI-F in D.I. Khan and Tank begins with voters’ disillusionment with Faisal Karim Kundi, the PPP’s deputy speaker in the National Assembly during the last parliament.

“Faisal has let people down,” said Aslam Awan, a D.I. Khan-based journalist. “Over the last five years, there has been little development in the area and even the small amount there has been, Faisal has failed to sell it to the people. People will only vote for maulana with heavy hearts.”

Khizer Abbas, a voter in NA-24, echoed the feelings of many here when he said, “Kundi has done nothing for us. Kundi construction, Kundi transport — development money has been poured into his own companies and you can see the results. And everyone knows that Kundi has been more interested in Tank, where he’s channelled funds through his brother.”

Mushtaq Ahmed Dar, a local JUI-F leader, explained his party’s resurgence in this way: “To begin with, Kundi’s performance has been very disappointing. Then, we are getting the benefit of the development work done in the MMA era because the comparison with Kundi is so stark. People also sense our graph is rising across the province and we could form the next government, so candidates and voters are flocking to us.” So upbeat is the JUI-F about its electoral prospects that party leaders believe Kundi-like setbacks over the last five years in NA-25 — where Attaur Rehman is accused of being an absentee representative with little interest in developing his constituency --- can also be overcome.

“Yes, there is a lot of talk about Attaur Rehman, but all that talk will end once maulana stands,” Dar said, referring to Fazlur Rehman’s decision to also contest NA-25.

But a senior PPP leader from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa offered a different assessment: “Faisal’s brother Ahmed is the PPP candidate in NA-25. Ahmed has spent a lot of time there, while Atta(ur Rehman) hasn’t done anything. Maulana knows he has a tough fight in Tank (NA-25). But yes, he’s ahead against Faisal (in NA-24).”

No runaway winner yet While momentum may be with the JUI-F, the party could yet face stiff competition on election day. “Perception and reality are different. In 2008, the JUI-F lost all six of the provincial assembly seats in D.I. Khan and Tank,” said Aslam Awan. “Even now, maulana has weak candidates at the provincial assembly level and is trying to break strong candidates from other parties.”

Awan continued: “The JUI-F isn’t as strong as people think. In Bannu, there’s Akram Durrani and no one else. In Karak, Kohat and Hangu, maulana is still looking for winning horses.”

At least three factors could adversely affect the JUI-F’s electoral ambitions in D.I. Khan and Tank: the Shia vote, the Seraiki-province issue and the intense rivalry among the established political families in the area.

Yasin Qureshi, a senior local journalist, said: “The Shia vote is unhappy with maulana because of his soft stance after the Quetta bombings. But then, Kundi has failed to deliver on his 2008 agreement with the Shia community, so that vote could split a bit.”

On the Seraiki-province issue — a potentially hot-button issue in D.I. Khan and Tank because of their large Seraiki populations — Qureshi said: “There’s no big leader to carry the Seraiki flag here, but it could still click as an issue. Had Faisal Kundi resigned from the National Assembly a couple of months ago to demand a Seraiki province, he could have picked up many, many votes.”

But the senior PPP leader in KP speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “Both the Seraiki and Shia vote will go to the Kundis. I mean, they can’t really go to maulana given his stance on the issues, can they?”

The internecine warfare among the various local political families is another complicating factor.

The 2008 election in PK-66 embodies the many contradictions of party and personal politics. The seat was narrowly won by Sanaullah Khan Miankhel on a PML-Q ticket after Faisal Kundi backed him in return for his support in Kundi’s National Assembly race. The spurned PPP candidate, Qamar Zaman, quit the party in protest but continued to nurture his base in PK-66, while Miankhel’s support ebbed after he failed to deliver in office.

Now, Miankhel is looking for a new party, said to be the PML-N, while Zaman is being wooed back by the PPP and even courted by the ANP. The seat, though, is a stronghold of Lutfur Rehman, another brother of Fazlur Rehman, who was unseated in the anti-maulana wave of 2008.

A JUI-F leader speaking on the condition of anonymity summed up the area’s complex politics thus: “In D.I. Khan, turnout is always low and ordinary people are not really into politics. It really comes down to bari ki bemari,” referring to the voters’ tendency to alternate between the main contenders.

PTI takes aim in South Waziristan South Waziristan, with its conservative population and tribal system, has long been a stronghold of the JUI-F. At present, the senator from South Waziristan, Saleh Shah, is a member of the JUI-F, as were the last two MNAs from the agency: Abul Malik Wazir (NA-41 in 2008) and Maulana Merajuddin (NA-42 in 2002).

Now, however, a PTI candidate, Dost Mohammad Khan, looks set to give the JUI-F a tough fight in NA-42, the Mehsud-dominated constituency in which no election has been held since 2002.

Khan, a recently retired bureaucrat who is close to the PTI chief Imran Khan, explained why he believes he can successfully take on the JUI-F: “Maulana operated through the mosques and madressahs in the area, that’s how he cultivated his support. But since the military operation, there are no more madressahs and the mosques are less of a factor.”

Also potentially benefiting Khan is the presence of two strong candidates, including the JUI-F’s Maulana Jamaluddin, from the Ishangi sub-tribe of the Mehsuds. Khan, who belongs to the Alizai sub-tribe, has no rival from within his clan who can split the sub-tribe vote.

However, Saleh Shah, the JUI-F senator, is confident about his party candidate’s chances in NA-42. “I’ve spent so much development money, not just in the resettled areas of South Waziristan but also for water, sewerage, roads and schools projects for IDPs in Tank and D.I. Khan. People know and love us,” Shah said.

Ultimately, with the majority of voters in NA-42 displaced, a low turnout could work to the JUI-F’s advantage. Ajmal Khan Wazir, the PML-Q MNA from neighbouring North Waziristan in the recently dissolved assembly, explained the challenge for the PTI’s Dost Mohammad Khan:

“Turnout will be very low. Since money plays a big role in Fata politics, if the winner just needs five or six thousand votes, it will be easier to buy them. In that case, the JUI-F knows the game well and is already very influential in the area.”