Pervez Khattak has been the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for more than three years now, but his government has struggled to find stability due to frequent differences in the ranks of his ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and because of problems that keep arising with the coalition partners and opposition parties.
The chief minister’s often under-estimated skills as a coalition builder have served him well to overcome one crisis after another and sustain himself in power. In the years gone by, he was credited with triggering defections from rival political parties and keeping his alliances intact, but times have changed and change of loyalties by lawmakers isn’t possible due to stricter anti-defection law. He can no longer practice this skill or he will have collected by now quite a few members of provincial assembly belonging to other parties by his side.
Pervez Khattak has been in politics for more than 30 years and has often been part of ruling parties. He has only rarely lost an election. This explains his abiding popularity among his voters and his constant contacts with the electorate whether in power or opposition.
He was originally a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) man and his uncle Nasrullah Khattak had served as the chief minister of the province during Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule. The family from Manki Sharif village in Nowshera district owning agricultural land and urban properties and doing construction business has been politically influential and financially strong. His father was a government contractor and the family business has continued as its younger members have been taking over the work with the change of generation.
Pervez Khattak rode his luck and made a timely decision to join the PTI before the 2013 general election. The PTI scored a famous and somewhat surprising victory in May 2013 as KP’s hard-to-please voters decided as they do in every election to punish the previous ruling parties, ANP and PPP, for failing to live up to their expectations and try the untried, Imran Khan-led party.
Suddenly, Pervez Khattak was among the frontrunners for the chief minister’s job primarily because of his experience in politics and his skills in the administration as a minister. His only rival for the job was Asad Qaiser, the loyal member of the PTI from Swabi who had won an assembly seat for the first time and had never served on any administrative position.
Though Asad Qaiser had won seats in both the National Assembly and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly in the traditional ANP stronghold of Swabi, his lack of administrative experience and his low profile diminished his chances compared to Pervez Khattak even though he had reportedly been told by Imran Khan, then convalescing on his hospital bed in Lahore after sustaining back injuries due to a fall from the stage during the election campaign, that he was his choice for the chief minister’s job.
Ironically, Asad Qaiser had defeated Pervez Khattak in the intra-party elections for the office of PTI president in KP and had more support among party workers than anyone else. That was an emotional contest between the PTI’s original loyalists led by Asad Qaiser, who at the time had completed 16 years long association with Imran Khan, and the newcomers such as Pervez Khattak joining the PTI bandwagon due to its growing popularity. Despite his victory against Pervez Khattak, Asad Qaiser wasn’t as lucky as him and had to be content with the second best job as the Speaker of the provincial assembly.
Even though Pervez Khattak is now being bitterly opposed by a dissident group of five PTI MNAs and half a dozen MPAs from KP and accused of failing to implement the party’s manifesto due to his old-style politics of patronage, and constituency and district-focused development activities, Imran Khan cannot remove him as such a move could lead to further divisions in the party and even cause the collapse of its government.
Finding a replacement with the 2018 general election less than two years away would be a risky proposition as getting the usually bickering PTI lawmakers and those from the allied parties to agree on a new chief minister would be a Herculean task. In a way, Pervez Khattak has made himself rather indispensable and the PTI leadership has to continue working with him as the chief minister even if he isn’t delivering the way it expected him to do and has become a somewhat divisive figure accused by his own party’s legislators of awarding development funds out of the way to opposition lawmakers to keep them in good humour. This had reportedly prompted the party leadership to curtail some of the chief minister’s powers and depend increasingly on the bureaucrats to get things done.
Pervez Khattak has also been focusing more on his native Nowshera district while distributing development funds much to the anger of PTI MPAs who argue their constituencies have been ignored and given meagre resources despite being under-developed and in desperate need of socio-economic development. There have been loud protests by the disgruntled lawmakers that the constituencies and native districts of the chief minister, Speaker Asad Qaiser, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) Chief Sirajul Haq and his party’s ministers Muzaffar Sayed and Inayatullah, both presently ministers and representing Lower Dir and Upper Dir, PTI’s influential Education Minister Mohammad Atif Khan from Mardan, and Senior Minister Sikandar Sherpao of the allied Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) elected from Charsadda, have been given bulk of the funds at the expense of the rest of the districts. The fact that coalition parties, JI and QWP, have got some of the choicest portfolio and over-representation in the cabinet, is also a source of bitterness for some PTI MPAs.
There is no doubt that Pervez Khattak is the most experienced and knowledgeable PTI leader in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Having served as a minister on a number of occasions in the previous provincial governments and run portfolios as diverse as irrigation, industries and labour, he has vast knowledge of issues and problems in the province and has figures on his finger-tips. He knows most of the bureaucrats and other stakeholders and can hold his own against anyone on most subjects. His style of argumentation can be sometimes irritating, but he certainly knows the requirements of his job.
His other strength is the number of family members and friends he helped win elections to stay by his side in case of need. Like the previous chief ministers, he has focused a lot on Nowshera by lavishing funds on his and his supporters’ constituencies, extending special favours to the voters to guarantee electoral victories to him and his chosen candidates in future polls.
It won’t be easy to ignore Pervez Khattak in KP politics even though his critics say he won’t stay in the PTI for long in the future if his interests so demand because he has been changing political parties in the past as well by going with the tide in keeping with the turn of events.