February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Barely a year after winning the elections in the NWFP and forming the coalition government with the PPP, in both the province and the centre, the ANP has started losing its popularity and direction. Right now, it seems incapable of coping with the situation due to a host of insurmountable problems ranging from an economic crisis to the insurgency in Swat and elsewhere in the Frontier.

And there have been other setbacks. The ANP’s federal minister for narcotics control, Khwaja Mohammad Khan Hoti, resigned from the cabinet without taking the party leadership into confidence. As a parting gift, he made allegations of corruption against the ANP-led government in the NWFP and blamed it’s poor performance for the lawlessness in the province. While insisting that he won’t quit the party despite demands by the ANP leadership that he give up both his ANP membership and National Assembly seat, Khwaja Hoti asked the NWFP Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti to resign on account of ‘widespread corruption’ and lawlessness in the province.

Though the main reason for Khwaja Hoti’s resignation was his rivalry with the chief minister’s family — which is headed by the latter’s father, former federal minister Azam Hoti — the nature of the allegations made by him against the ANP leadership could put the party on the defensive and damage its credibility. Khwaja Hoti isn’t known for his political maturity or the soundness of his decisions. In the past, he resigned as the PPP president in NWFP and joined the ANP in the hope of contesting the February 2008 general elections on its ticket. In fact, he had made his intentions clear by allowing his only son and political heir, Umar Farooq Hoti, to join the PML-N, at a recent public gathering at his Mardan home. The ANP leadership, for obvious reasons, was upset over this move and it was only a matter of time before their differences came out in the open.

Another drawback for the ruling ANP was its likely defeat in the by-election for a National Assembly seat that it had previously won from the Buner district. Its candidate, Istiqbal Khan, son of the deceased ANP MNA Abdul Mateen Khan — whose death necessitated the bypoll — was trailing by about 1,600 votes against Jamaat-i-Islami nominee Bakht Jehan Khan. The outcome of the by-election will be decided by the results from the 11 polling stations in Buner’s Shalbandai and Amnawar villages. However, due to a suicide bombing on the polling day, which killed 44 people, the polling was suspended and is now scheduled for February 14. Last month, too, the polling was postponed due to the villagers’ refusal to cast votes after having suffered such a huge tragedy. The ANP and its coalition partner, the PPP, had won the previous assembly by-elections but those were in the early days of the new government and the electorate was willing to give them a chance. It should be a matter of concern for a ruling party to lose a by-election in a country where the government is in a better position to oblige and attract voters.

However, the major challenge facing the ANP-led government is the general state of hopelessness in the NWFP because of insecurity and lawlessness in the region. It may be able to set its house in order by appeasing and reconciling the estranged ANP activists. But it won’t be easy to overcome the challenges in Swat and in some of the other militant-run districts. The fallout of the volatile situation in the adjoining FATA and Afghanistan is also making life difficult for the ruling ANP and PPP. The Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are growing in number, but with its meagre resources and lack of focus, the provincial government cannot do much.

Taliban militants have publicly threatened to target ANP leaders. While militants from the neighbouring tribal areas also pose a danger to the party leadership, the biggest threat is from the Taliban operating in Swat valley, under Maulana Fazlullah. The Swati militants are angry with the ANP-led provincial government for supporting the military operation in Swat and for not honouring their peace accord with them in May 2008. They have also targeted some politicians affiliated to the PPP and other parties. The list of 47 men summoned to their Shariat courts include a few belonging to the PML-Q and JUI-F — the main focus of their ire are ministers, assembly members and activists of the ruling ANP. The ANP had won all seven NWFP Assembly seats from Swat in the previous elections, with two of them currently serving as ministers, but none could stay in the region out of fear of the militants. The party won one of the two National Assembly seats, the second going to the PPP, but both the MNAs are now living in Islamabad. The decision by the lawmakers, nazims and other influential people to abandon Swat has caused demoralisation in the ranks of their respective political parties and disappointment among their voters. The military flew some of the lawmakers in its helicopters to Swat for day trips recently to hold a press conference in Mingora and to meet the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, but none were able to stay back to rally their supporters, in the face of the rampaging militants.

One ANP politician who stood out in this mayhem was the 82-year-old Mohammad Afzal Khan. Despite the threats to his life, the former provincial minister, who briefly served as caretaker federal minister, refused to leave his village, Kuza Drushkhela, located in the Matta area, which is a Taliban stronghold. Pleas by his supporters and well-wishers to shift to the safety of Peshawar, just like other Swati politicians failed to move him, as he felt that staying away would hinder him from highlighting the issues of his native district. Despite a number of attacks on his house and an ambush on his car that injured him and his nephew, and also killed his two bodyguards, Afzal Khan has defiantly stayed put in his village and continued to speak out against the militants. His courageous conduct prompted many people to compare him to his party leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, who was criticised by some of his own party workers for hurriedly fleeing to Islamabad, along with his family, in a helicopter sent by President Asif Ali Zardari after surviving a suicide bombing in his village in Charsadda on Eid last year. By opting to move permanently to Islamabad and then embarking on a long overseas trip, Asfandyar Wali disappointed his followers who had pinned their hopes on him to lead them in the fight against the militants. The fear of suicide bombings has also forced Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti and other ANP leaders, such as the provincial party president Afrasiyab Khattak and his predecessor and senior minister Bashir Bilour — both survivors of suicide attacks — to limit their movements.

The ANP is a major partner of the PPP in the existing power-sharing system. It is part of the federal government and its members are also ministers in the coalition governments in Sindh and Balochistan. In the NWFP, the party is dominating the coalition government with the PPP. It would obviously not want the present political arrangement to be disturbed, and is, therefore, keen to support the PPP, vis-à-viz Mian Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N. Though the ANP has been supporting an independent judiciary in general terms, it doesn’t want the restoration of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, just like the PPP, as this could destabilise the ruling parties and put checks on their style of governance. The ANP is also grateful to President Zardari and the PPP for supporting its demand for renaming the NWFP as ‘Pakhtunkhwa’ and scrapping the Kalabagh Dam project. The PML-N has differed on both these issues and this has widened the gulf between itself and the ANP and PPP.

However, the biggest challenge facing the ANP and its PPP ally is militancy and extremism. And this could undo their government. The ANP, due to its nationalist and secular outlook, has always been opposed to the Taliban and their predecessors, the Afghan mujahideen. In fact, the ANP had supported both the Soviet and the US invasion of Afghanistan. It was also critical of the Pakistani Taliban, though this didn’t stop the pragmatic ANP leadership from negotiating a peace accord with the Taliban in Swat in the hope of restoring normalcy in the once peaceful valley. The ANP-led NWFP government still supports a dialogue with the Swati Taliban, but its offer is now conditional as it wants the militants to first lay down their arms and accept the government’s writ. The Taliban in Swat have rejected the offer as they know laying down arms would weaken their bargaining position.

Following the collapse of the Swat peace deal, the ANP-PPP government in the province began expressing reservations over the direction of the Pakistan Army’s action in the valley and demanded a more focused and targeted military operation. Pushed by widespread criticism from politicians, civil society and the media, the military finally launched a large-scale operation, in the last week of January, backed by gunship helicopters, artillery guns and other heavy weapons, winning applause from its detractors. However, the killing of scores of civilians and the displacement of a large population is already causing problems for both the provincial and federal governments. The inability to settle and rehabilitate the IDPs and to explain the unacceptably high numbers of “collateral damage” aggravates the situation. All these combined lead to a political fallout and make it even more trying for the ANP and its allies to bring peace and stability to Swat and other troublespots in the NWFP.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.