In a not that surprising development, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) tasted an ignominious defeat in the first round of local government (LG) elections held in 17 districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). In most of the 65 constituencies of tehsils (sub-districts) in the 17 districts, the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) retained top position, followed by the PTI and Awami National Party (ANP), while the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) trailed far behind.
During the first phase of LG elections in KP, in all, 12.668 million voters — seven million males and five-and-a-half million females — were registered for the polls in 17 KP districts, including Buner, Bajaur, Swabi, Peshawar, Nowshera, Kohat, Karak, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Tank, Haripur, Khyber, Mohmand, Mardan, Charsadda, Hangu and Lakki Marwat.
Of all the district constituencies, the most important was the contest for the slot of mayor of KP provincial capital, Peshawar. JUI-F candidate, Zubair Ali, the son of former party Senator and district nazim, Ghulam Ali, who is also a close relative of party head, Maulana Fazl, won by getting over 62,000 votes, followed by PTI’s Rizwan Bangash, a political novice, who bagged 50,000 votes. Importantly, Haji Sher Rahman of the ANP, one of the oldest political groups of KP, got 49,000 votes for the slot, whereas Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) candidate Arbab Zarak Khan Khalil got 45,000 votes. The political system of Pakistan and that of KP’s local government is based on the concept what political scientists refer to as “the winner takes all.” In other words, the candidate getting the largest number of votes is elected while the rest of the candidates, who together may get more than double the votes of the top vote getter, are left with nothing. This is the irony of our political system. Therefore, the elected candidate is never the true representative of the people of the constituency. Against this backdrop, the JUI-F candidate may have won the slot of mayor of Peshawar but he is not the true representative of the people of Peshawar. So, the statement of JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman that KP belonged to his party and is still its bastion is very much inappropriate. Firstly, the JUI-F has got only the largest number of tehsil chairman slots but it has, not by any means, swept the elections. It is important to note that the JUI-F head has always dubbed the July 2018 national elections “rigged”, which the PTI won across the country and got a two-thirds majority in KP, mostly by defeating the JUI-F candidates, including Fazl himself. However, the JUI-F has never stopped its elected candidates from taking oath as Members of the National Assembly or KP Assembly or even resigned from the legislative bodies lest giving up official perks and privileges.
Coming to the defeat of the PTI in the 17 districts in the local government elections of KP, it is a big blow to the ruling party which has its governments in the Centre and the province. More importantly, KP has been the forte of the PTI in the last decade and Prime Minister Imran Khan has a large following in the province. It is now more than eight years that the PTI has been in the saddle in KP. During the period, the party has carried out unprecedented development projects in the province. For instance, financially and infrastructure-wise the biggest project of the province, Peshawar Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), was conceived and constructed in 2017 and developed in three years. Then the question arises: why has the PTI failed so miserably in the first phase of the KP local government elections?
The foremost reason for the defeat is the unprecedented price-hike in the country. Inflation, which has reached double digits in Pakistan, is blamed generally by the masses on the sloppy governance of PM Imran Khan. This is a quite substantial allegation and observation from the people. KP is inhabited mostly by poor people or those having meagre sources of income. Inflation in the province, which lacks industrialisation and extensive agriculture as well as a strong services sector due to lack of corporatization, has hit the people harder than in other areas of Pakistan. Whereas, the inhabitants of KP, who gave the mandate to the PTI in the 2018 national elections, had great expectations from PM Imran Khan and his chief minister in the province. Unfortunately, the people could not see their expectations fulfilled in the shape of the provision of employment and housing, as promised by the PTI before the last national elections. Instead, the government at the Centre could not control the unabated price-hike in the country. This is despite the fact that the price-hike in Pakistan, to a certain degree, is linked to inflation in the world due to the impact of deadly COVID-19, which prevented businesses and industry from reaching their fullest potential.
The second most important factor, which resulted in the PTI defeat in the first phase of LG elections in KP, is the party becoming a traditional political outfit. The PTI had an edge over other parties by claiming to have introduced non-family or non-hereditary politics in Pakistan, bringing a new and young leadership to the government and legislative politics. There is no doubt that the PTI has been transformed into a traditional political party. For instance, what we have seen in the recent LG elections in KP is that the PTI awarded tickets to close relatives of party leaders. Rizwan Bangash, who contested for the position of mayor of Peshawar, was a political non-entity but cousin of provincial Minister Kamran Bangash. In DI Khan district, some PTI candidates were relatives of Federal Minister Ali Amin Gandapur. It really frustrated the young supporters and voters of the PTI, who in a large number, did not vote for party candidates. It is important to note that the strongest support of the PTI comes from young men and women. While women were not at all interested in the LG polls, young men also showed no interest in them.
The third most important reason for the defeat of the PTI is deep rifts in the party. During the elections, a large number of tehsil candidates of the PTI, who got party tickets, found themselves contesting against party workers, who could not get a party ticket, vying as independent candidates. In this situation, the party vote was divided, giving an edge to the rival candidates. Rifts in the PTI are something natural for a political entity like it which is non-traditional in orientation but becoming traditional in the process.
The first phase of LG elections would have far-reaching consequences for the country’s politics because the province is the bastion of the countrywide and provide-wide ruling party, the PTI.