The Americans are wary of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The federal government of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is also upset with them. And Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI-F) sees a glimmer of hope, with the wheeling and dealing he has mastered in his political career.
Background interviews reveal that PTI Chief Imran Khan is himself uncomfortable with the way the situation is unfolding vis-à-vis the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
When the PTI swept away the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) in the province in the general elections in May and neutralized other opponents like the PML-N, it did not know it was about to step into a quagmire. Some had foretold though that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would prove to be Mr Khan’s Waterloo.
The PML-N had the option of cobbling a difficult alliance with Qaumi Watan Party (QWP), JUI-F and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) to attain a simple majority in the provincial assembly and form a government. But Nawaz Sharif decided otherwise. He let the PTI form a government, and Mr Khan took the bait.
[quote]Veteran politician Aftab Sherpao may become an important powerbroker[/quote]
Mr Sharif met two objectives with the move. First, Mr Khan’s attention and energies were diverted to the administrative and political problems of a province he never belonged to. He seemed to have got encumbered there, ignoring his diminishing popularity in Punjab. Secondly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s issues – Taliban joyrides to Namak Mandi, deep-rooted corruption, and drone attacks – are too complicated to handle for a party that hasn’t ruled before.
Hardly any Pashtuns have access to Mr Khan’s cabinet. The late-night retreats at Bani Gala are limited to wealthy or politically worthy leaders from Southern Punjab.
On November 23, the PTI staged a rally on Peshawar’s Ring Road, briefly blocking Kabul-bound trucks, including containers carrying goods to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Five or six speakers – including Azam Swati, Sheikh Rashid, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Liaquat Baloch and Imran Khan – addressed the rally. None of them were Pashtun. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government was not part of the protest rally.
“I don’t care if we lose our government,” Imran Khan told a cheering crowd of thousands. “We will not accept drone attacks in Pakistan. And therefore, we are stopping NATO supplies.”
Why did Mr Khan sound so eager to see his government toppled? Are the issues it is facing too complicated to resolve?
“Running Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a nightmare,” a source in the PTI said. “There are frictions among the PTI provincial leadership. Secondly, the security situation has worsened.” He said Mr Khan has considered the option of quitting and rejuvenating.
Recently, Imran Khan fired two ministers belonging to the QWP on charges of corruption. The QWP decided to leave the ruling coalition.
“It could have been dealt differently. We lost important allies. In a situation like this, we may lose the numbers game at any moment,” said a provincial leader of the PTI, asking not to be named.
The ruling alliance – consisting of PTI, JI, Awami Jamhoori Ittehad, and All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) – has 68 seats in the 124-seat provincial assembly. With the QWP out of government, the combined strength of the opposition – which also includes PPP, PML-N, JUI-F and ANP – has increased to 63.
If one of its smaller allies defects to the opposition, the ruling alliance will be in minority. The government may remain for a while, but it cannot sustain for too long.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s political advisers have already deliberated on the option of imposing governor’s rule in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in such a scenario. The possibility is remote because of the side effects. However, Fazlur Rehman and other ambitious politicians would want to bring an in-house change. Sources said veteran politician Aftab Sherpao might become an important power broker.
In the November 23 rally, PTI workers were given a license to break the law. The leadership, including Mr Khan, incited the workers to stop Kabul-bound trucks without realizing they were asking them to break more than a dozen laws. In the days following the rally, the emotionally charged workers searched trucks, manhandled drivers and stopped Afghan transit trade.
“The PTI workers have blocked NATO supplies across all routes in KP on instruction of Imran Khan. Spin doctoring in this regard is condemnable,” the party tweeted from its official Twitter account.
Soon, the provincial police cracked down on the protesters and arrested several of them. Transit trade and NATO supplies resumed after a brief disruption.
Information Minister Senator Pervez Rashid said the blockade of NATO supplies was a cheap publicity stunt. He accused the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government of receiving millions of dollars in aid from America and other NATO countries.
PTI leader Shafqat Mehmood said his party’s government did not initiate any of those aid projects. The money was being spent on projects started by the previous government.
According to the official figures, the entire development budget of the province is around Rs 113 billion, including approximately Rs 35 million in aid from western countries.
Shafqat Mehmood said it was the responsibility of the federal government to stop NATO supplies in protest against drone attacks, which he said violated Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Asked if the drone attacks were a result of the Pakistani government’s failure to eliminate non-state actors in its tribal region, fiery PTI leader Naz Baloch said that would mean Pakistan could also attack anywhere in the United States if it wanted Raymond Davis.
Shahzad Raza is a journalist based in Islamabad. Follow him on Twitter @shahzadrez