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Khyber Pakhtunkhwa polls, Bajwa, Opposition and other signs Imran Khan won’t last till 2023

Local body election trends are sometimes opposite to what a state-level polling may throw up. But that happens in democracies. Pakistan is different.

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It’s been rather a shocker for Prime Minister Imran Khan ‘Niazi’— his primary electoral base crumbled to dust with the unexpectedness of a cave in. Elections to local bodies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa saw total defeat of the ruling party that lost ignominiously to Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a somewhat dubious representative of the religious Right. For PM Khan, it’s humiliating. After all, Fazlur’s Jamaat Ulema Islam(F) is hardly a top dog in Pakistani politics. Worse, this comes at a time when Imran Khan’s stock with the ‘establishment’ is low, his international standing shaky, and his leadership in the ‘Ummah’ even lower.  Scenting trouble, the knives are out as the Opposition gears up to confront the prime minister, and rumours spread thick and fast that the end is near.

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The KP elections 

On the face of it, since these were local body elections only, it would seem that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has time enough, to recoup and plan ahead for general elections scheduled two years from now. And indeed, as most democracies know, local body election trends are sometimes quite opposite to what a state-level election may throw up. But that’s in democracies. In Pakistan, things are different. If the ‘establishment’ doesn’t weigh in, one is apt to lose. And that’s what appears to have happened in KP.

The results indicate an ignominious defeat for the PTI, with Fazlur’s party winning 17 tehsil council seats against the former’s 12. The influential mayoral seat of Peshawar too went to the JUI(F), a humiliation to say the least. The KP elections are important because it is the only province where the PTI reigns undisputed with 94 seats in the Provincial House in a total of 145 seats. Elsewhere, the party is struggling to maintain its hold. KP was that one pocket the PM could have been confident of. But now, the Maulana reigns. The polls saw a serious bout of  violence with at least five people killed, polling stations set ablaze, and armed men take away ballot boxes.

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The reasons are not far to seek 

Imran Khan’s ire was evident as he summoned Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CM Mahmood Khan, who briefed the prime minister on reasons for PTI’sloss. One of the reasons cited was that most of the candidates put up by the party were relatives of the governor, senior ministers and lawmakers. In short, performance was given the go-by, a practice quite common to South Asia, and doesn’t seem to quite explain it. That Imran Khan rather smartly chose to go public on ‘wrong candidate selection’, ordering a complete reorganisation of all party units across the country, and declaring that the PTI would not tolerate ‘dynastic politics’. That’s a smart move to coax a possible win for the next phase of elections on 16 January, for the remaining 17 districts.

The reality underlying the defeat is acute economic regression. Inflation has doubled since the time of Nawaz Sharif, rising from 4.5 per cent in 2015 to the 8.9 per cent currently. Prices of essential items have spiralled beyond the reach of the common Pakistani, with vegetable oil prices rising 27 per cent on average and gasoline seeing a 49 per cent surge in just one year. The Pakistani rupee has slid severely to reach 178 against USD even as the country’s food import bill increased by nearly 54 per cent, constituting 15 per cent of the total import bill. In other words, Pakistan’s food security is import dependent. That cost is being passed on to the street. It’s untenable.

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The two elephants in the room…

Then there’s the elephant in the room. Or rather two of them. One is the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), now ruthlessly crushed after the arrest of its office bearers and the killing of Arif Wazir last year. While the PTM began as a movement in the tribal areas (which were merged with KP in 2018), it had gone far beyond these areas to reach Balochistan and Sindh, where it still has the sympathy of other oppressed minorities. The Pashtuns have borne the brunt of the ‘war on terror’, forced migration from their homelands, and hundreds of their youth ‘disappeared’ after the dreaded knocks in the night.

The other ‘elephant’ is the almost daily depredations by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) whose attacks have gone up steadily, followed in recent days by another nightmare. Cadres of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) have now extended their activities from Afghanistan into the province, attacking alleged police ‘informants’ and further eroding security in these areas.  In this double whammy, Imran Khan’s decision to negotiate with the TTP has been reviled, especially considering the fact that an entirely peaceful PTM has been throttled. That position has not done the PTI government much good in an area where the State’s heavy hand has been most apparent.

Also read: Minorities in Pakistan living nightmarish life, says BJP’s Sirsa after Karachi temple vandalism

….and the one outside 

In Pakistan, the strength of the political ‘commander’ is derived from his relationship with the military; here, there is no sympathy for the underdog, however virtuous.

In recent times, Imran Khan’s reported tussle with the army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa has been the subject of court gossip and TV news. It may be recalled that Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed was rather abruptly transferred out to head the Peshawar Corps on 6 October and his replacement later announced. On the face of it, it seemed the appointment was intended to ensure that Faiz would be eligible for the top post, once he had a corps command under his belt. It should have been routine, except that either in high dudgeon or a burst of ego, PM Khan refused the shift, insisting on an extension of the ISI Chief’s tenure. The matter dragged on, with the prime minister insisting that the ISI chief was necessary to deal with the fragile situation in Afghanistan even as the army stuck to its guns. It wasn’t until the end of the month when a via media position was reached, and a notification issued for replacement of Lt Gen. Faiz, but only after mid-November. That has dented the image of the prime minister and led to the Opposition gaining hope that a change could come — well before the 2023 general elections.

Lt. Gen. Faiz has since taken charge of the Peshawar Corps, crucial in operations against the TTP or others.

Also read: Pakistan’s economy is busted, but Islamabad clearly has access to other, ‘shady funds’

A political storm or a mild shower?

The political forces too are gathering in Pakistan with Maryam Nawaz stating that her father Nawaz Sharif would soon return to the country, and predicting the end of the Khan government. She also congratulated Maulana Fazlur Rehman on his victory.

Meanwhile, Asif Zardari, co-chair of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been dropping hints that he had been approached for assistance and ‘share a formula’. He also hit out at Nawaz Sharif for leaving the country, which led to remonstrance from brother Shahbaz. Clearly, the politicos smell blood but, as always, remain disunited. The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), constituting 11 political parties that held many impressive rallies last year, has since shown no signs of any movement at all. It’s not Opposition unity which is therefore driving a stake into the Khan government.

For all his posturing against corruption and commitment to governance, Khan has pushed Pakistan to the brink of economic  collapse, soured relations with main allies like the Saudis, and seems incapable of making statements that are not irrational  or undiplomatic — witness, for instance, his remarks at the recent Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference, where he appeared to defend Taliban’s refusal to allow girls education, indicating that it was an Afghan cultural norm. This entirely untrue statement caused an outcry in Pakistan, something that could have been avoided by an astute politician.

Khan, it seems, hasn’t grown from a ‘protestor’ par excellence, to PM material. Worst of all, he may have made the cardinal error of believing that he actually heads the country. As to Pakistan’s future, consider this quote by French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr —plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. Gen Bajwa would know this one, in French or in Punjabi.

The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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