The unbearable political lightness of Aftab Sherpao

The QWP has to make alliances if it wants to get some space back

The unbearable political lightness of Aftab Sherpao
The entry of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the revival of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal has narrowed the space for the nationalist Qaumi Watan Party in Charsadda and other districts.

Its leadership is still hopeful they win as many seats in the 2018 elections. “PTI was there in the 2013 elections yet secured three provincial constituency seats because of our strategy,” said QWP leader Asad Afridi.

The horse-trading during the Senate elections and a poor performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as the QWP claims, has brightened its chances, its leaders say.

“Horse-trading in the Senate elections discredited all parties and people know their true face,” said QWP chairman Aftab Sherpao.

The party is also confronted with the revival of the MMA, an alliance formed in 2002. Despite these new alliances the pendulum could swing either way, and the QWP could join the JUI or the PTI once again.
Except for a few nationalists, mostly opportunists joined Aftab Sherpao and they left him in times of crises, Rahimullah Yousufzai added, while pointing towards the MPAs who won elections on QWP tickets

Political path

Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao has had an eventful journey from federalist to nationalist politics. A two-time chief minister, he served as interior minister and survived four bomb attacks and outsmarted the National Accountability Bureau in 2002. He is known for a Machiavellian ability to outmaneuver his opponents.

His eventful career as a federalist started when was appointed provincial vice president of the Pakistan Peoples Party in 1986 after his elder brother Hayat Muhammad Khan was assassinated in a bomb blast in 1985.

After winning the elections in 1977, he was appointed provincial president and led the PPP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the then NWFP. After General Zia-ul Haq imposed martial law, he was arrested and jailed for protesting against it.

It was in 1988 that he contested the election for NA-1 that gave his career a booster shot. He was made chief minister.

In 1990, Nawaz Sharif took over and Sherpao became the opposition leader in the provincial assembly. He won in 1993 but could not formed the government and served as as opposition leader again.

Aftab Sherpao was re-elected in 1997 he was unable to form the government and it was during this period that he started developing differences with Shaheed Benazir Bhutto. “The Pakhtun have suffered immense losses in the war on terror while there was no one to raise a voice for them, even the Awami National Party,” he said. These differences forced him to part ways with the PPP.

“This was a period when he was at the climax of his popularity and people in even Lahore and Larkana would chant Aftab Sherpao Zindabad slogans,” said Haq Nawaz, a journalist, working for the Washington Post. “His politics has been confined to a few constituencies after he parted ways with the PPP and at the same time, the PPP vanished from KP.”

Striking a deal with the government to get rid of corruption charges, he returned from self-exile in Britain and formed his own faction called PPP-Sherpao, after breaking away from the party in 2002.

During the general elections in 2002, he won one national assembly seat and six provincial assembly seats from Charsadda to become interior minister. The Lal Masjid operation proved to be a severe blow to his reputation as he was blamed for keeping silent over it as it was alleged that mostly Pakhtun students were killed.

“This operation tarnished his political stature as well as led to several suicide attacks on him,” commented Haq Nawaz.

Aftab Sherpao is still accused of doing nothing to stop military operations in Fata that started when he was interior minister.

His politics of federalism ended in 2012 when he formed the Qaumi Watan Party and started nationalist politics. Nationalists around him says militancy in Fata and KP and the energy crises had damaged the popularity of the ANP, creating a void.

As a nationalist, Sherpao demanded a new social contract between the state and its people in which every province could get its rights. Besides, this it also asks for peace with Afghanistan that would benefit the Pakhtun population on both sides of the Durand Line.

Weak base

However, his entry as a nationalist has not yielded results as he has been unable to attract a large enough audience. “The major reason is that the QWP ideological base is weak,” said Rahimullah Yousafzai, the resident editor The News in Peshawar. Besides this, he is accused of keeping important slots within his family even though he calls his party ‘qaumi’. “He is a prominent political personality of KP, no doubt, but he was unable to strengthen the base of his party like that of the ANP because of this,” he said.

Except for a few nationalists, mostly opportunists joined him and they left him in times of crises, Yousafzai added, while pointing towards the MPAs who won elections on QWP tickets. “And this is why that he could not fill the void.”

The problem with the QWP is that as long as it remains in power, people will join him as he is known for giving people jobs. “Once he gets out of power his close friends will start leaving him,” added Yousafzai.

In response to these assertions, Sherpao said that the QWP was just five years old but still more popular than other nationalist parties.

When the PPP came to power in 2008, its co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari, hadf tried to persuade Sherpao to rejoin him but he refused after he faced severe resistance from nationalists around him.

Leaders in the ANP claim that nationalist politics was the only option to survive as Sherpao had failed to reach out to a more national audience after leaving the PPP.

“The ANP’s failure forced us to start a struggle for the rights of the Pakhtun and, at the same time, we also demand protection for the rights of all provinces,” said Jamil Marghuz, a QWP leader when asked what led him to become a nationalist.

“He saw that the politics of the PPP was confined to Sindh and of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to the Punjab, while nationalist parties in KP have done nothing for the Pakhtun, therefore he started struggle for their rights,” Jamil added.

The political dynamics of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have changed since 2008 as local parties have been confined such as the Jamaat-e-Islami to Malakand, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal to the southern districts.

Similarly, the QWP’s politics has been confined to Peshawar valley where it mostly contests elections by forging alliances with the JUI-F or JI.

In the 2013 elections, it formed an alliance with the JUI-F in Charsadda, Swabi and Mardan and won six seats, three in Charsadda, one in Swabi and and one in Chakdarra.

However, so far, three of its MPAs, including Miraj Humayun, Barrister Sultan Muhammad and Ibrar Tanoli, have left the QWP.  “People always join parties when they are in power,” said Sherpao. “Once a caretaker set-up comes, the same people will change their loyalties.”