Yet another alliance of Pakhtun nationalist parties has been formed despite the failure of such attempts in the past.
On March 18, five Pakhtun nationalist parties joined hands to announce the formation of the Pakhtunkhwa Jamhoori Ittehad (PJI) to jointly campaign for implementation of a nine-point agenda for the resolution of problems facing ethnic Pakhtuns. All the parties are progressive and secular with strong belief in Pakhtun nationalism.
The biggest party in the alliance is Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) founded in 2012 by Aftab Ahmad Sherpao, who was twice chief minister of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), renamed in 2010 as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). At the time he was a top leader of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He later parted ways with the PPP to form the breakaway PPP-Sherpao before embracing Pakhtun nationalism by launching the QWP. He also remained federal minister, including a stint as interior minister in the cabinet during military dictator General Ziaul Haq’s rule.
Aftab Sherpao’s eldest son Sikandar Hayat Sherpao, who is the QWP’s provincial head and has remained a minister in the PTI-led coalition government in KP, was named the convener of the alliance for six months. He will head a joint working committee that has been contacting leaders of other nationalist parties in a bid to widen the alliance. In fact, the QWP and the Sherpao family has played a key role in the formation of the PJI.
Out of the five parties in the alliance, only the QWP (as well as PPP-Sherpao) has won seats in the previous elections in the National Assembly, Senate and KP Assembly. However, it failed to win any seat in the July 2018 general election when the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) swept the polls in KP. By forming the PJI, the five parties could pool their votes in the next general election to win a few seats even though the QWP alone is a proven vote-getter.
To a lesser extent, the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) headed by Afzal Shah Khamosh has small pockets of support among the peasants in Charsadda and Malakand. However, these votes have never been enough to win an assembly seat for MKP. The MKP was once a leading leftist party in Pakistan, but splits in its ranks have caused its decline.
The Awami Workers Party (AWP) in KP was dependent on its head Fanoos Gujjar for its identity and popular support. His death in December last year deprived the party of a rallying figure who always contested elections in his native Buner district and managed to get sizeable number of votes without making it to the assembly. Sahibzada Haider Zaman has been representing the AWP in the activities being undertaken by the PJI.
The other two parties in the alliance are Pakhtunkhwa Ulasi Tehreek and the National Party. The former is led by Dr Said Alam Mehsud, who is also a core committee member of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). The National Party is primarily a Balochistan-based party of Baloch nationalists led by Hasil Bizenjo and former chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch. In KP, it is headed by Mukhtiar Bacha, a veteran leftist activist who has been part of a number of progressive and nationalist parties in the past.
Two major Pakhtun nationalist parties, the Asfandyar Wali Khan-led Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakhtun Khwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) headed by Mahmood Khan Achakzai, have stayed away from the alliance. However, the PJI component parties have not put in efforts to persuade the leadership of the ANP and PKMAP to join the alliance. While Mahmood Achakzai reportedly has serious reservations about joining an alliance of Pakhtun nationalist parties due to his bitter experiences of the past, the ANP leaders haven’t completely ruled out the possibility yet as they have held talks with the PJI and sought time until after the party’s elections in April before making the decision to join it or not.
It should be noted that the PKMAP is close to the PTM and has been supporting some of its activities. The ANP considers the PTM a threat as some of its activists have been actively taking part in PTM’s activities and defending its hardline stance on issues concerning militancy and the role of the military. This was the reason the ANP expelled three of its prominent members, Afrasiab Khattak, Bushra Gohar and Mohsin Dawar. The last-named is now one of the top PTM leaders and also an elected MNA from North Waziristan.
On its part, the PJI has been in touch with the PTM and is seeking to meet its leaders to invite them to join the five-party alliance of the Pakhtun nationalist parties. According to a PJI leader, they wanted to bring the PTM to the political mainstream so that the challenges facing the Pakhtuns could be collectively highlighted and overcome.
There is no chance that two religio-political parties led by Pakhtun politicians would join the PJI. Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F and the Sirajul Haq-led Jamaat-i-Islami cannot afford to join the PJI as their politics is based on Islam rather than ethnicity. The same holds true for the JUI-S, which after the death of its leader Maulana Samiul Haq is now headed by his son, Maulana Hamidul Haq.
The PJI’s nine-point agenda encompasses a number of issues, which in some cases concern not only Pakhtuns but also other ethnic groups. It seeks introduction of a new social contract in Pakistan to bring to an end the concept of the security state and work for a strong federation along democratic, welfare and social lines. It wants reconstitution of the provinces on social, historical and cultural basis. Other agenda points include payment of compensation in a transparent manner to the victims of terrorist incidents and restoration of sustainable peace in Pakhtun-populated areas through the execution of a comprehensive plan.
The need for swiftly executing the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with KP in line with constitutional requirements and Supreme Court orders was also emphasized. The first major activity of the PJI would be a conference to be held in Peshawar in April to put pressure on the government to expedite the merger process and fulfill the promises made with the people of erstwhile Fata.
The PJI pledged to support an all-inclusive Afghan peace process and seek introduction of a comprehensive policy to facilitate trade with the Central Asian Republics. It would strive for the rights of the farmers, labourers and students and make efforts to promote all languages and cultures of KP with a view to bring the people closer.
Pointing out that the Pakhtuns had suffered heavily due to the conflict in their areas, the PJI demanded a comprehensive financial package to address Pakhtun grievances and sense of deprivation. It also called for financial autonomy for KP to revive its economy.
It is obvious the PJI agenda is ambitious and far-reaching. Accomplishing some of these objectives requires political clout and representation in the decision-making forums and also street-power. The PJI has to first widen its membership by convincing the bigger Pakhtun nationalist parties to join its ranks to make the alliance effective. Those attaching hopes with the PJI would be praying it doesn’t meet the fate of previous alliances of Pakhtun nationalists.