Monday, 1 April 2013

Aftab Sherpao: The Politics of survival

-a version of this article was originally published 1st of April 2013 by Express Tribune

This 2013 election marks a record for Aftab Khan Sherpao the leader of his own Pashtun nationalist party the Qaumi Watan Party . if he wins his seat again it will be his eighth successive electoral victory since 1977. He also has survived repeated militant attacks against himself against all odds.
While having consistent election winners is common place in many parts of Punjab and Sindh, it is the exception in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where the previous record of successive electoral wins was held by the late Arbab Jehangir. Elections in the province are far more fluid then elsewhere and many local and national leaders have suffered surprise election defeats when they have not been on the right side of the electorate (or other brokers).
His elder brother Hayat Khan Sherpao was one of the founding members of the Pakistan Peoples Party and a close lieutenant of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, he was killed in 1975 by a bomb blast in Peshawar University. Contesting the 1977 election for the first time he defeated Sherbaz Khan Mazari of the National Democratic Party (a precursor to the Awami National Party).

Sherpaos political career has especially been noted for his success in wooing independents combined Machiavellian ability to outmanoeuvre friends and opponents when it came to holding on to power, while lacking the charisma to reach out to a more national audience.

Aftab Sherpaos victory celebrations for his 1977 election win would be brief as after Zia-ul Haqs coup he was imprisoned on several occasions for protesting against the military regime. Sticking to the PPP and its new leader Benazir Bhutto he boycotted the 1985 elections before leading the provincial branch of the party to a plurality in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The party scored some major victories with Aftab Sherpao contested and won from Peshawar’s NA-1 constituency against Ghulam Bilour of the ANP and also won his provincial seat. This would mark the beginning of an unbroken series of victories from is home village . Elected as Chief Minister he Barely re-elected in what is now accepted as a heavily rigged election in 1990 he served as leader of opposition in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Provincial assembly. Re-elected in 1993 as the largest party in the province again this time he narrowly lost the vote to be Chief Minister to the PML-ANP nominee Pir Sabir Shah. Not one to sit by the way side help of the President Farooq Leghari controversially bought over independents and sitting MPA’s of the treasury bench to topple the government. Re-elected again in 1997 he used his handful of seats with devastating effect against the provincial alliance when he tabled a resolution in favour of renaming NWFP to Pakhtunkhwa. Knowing full well that the issue divided the two party’s he supported the renaming and forced the ANP to do the same. Once the resolution passed and the PML refused to rename the province Sherpao had successfully ended the PML-ANP’s eight year alliance. It was however during this same time he began to develop differences with Benazir Bhutto and finally broke away from the main PPP forming his own faction called PPP (Sherpao)

With the arrival of the Musharraf government initially Sherpao faced multiple corruption cases but managed to outsmart the National Accountability Bureau and escaped into exile in Britain. Rumoured to have returned as part of some sort of deal with the government he returned to Pakistan before the 2002 elections. True to his reputation he judged the mood rightly in his home province and struck up an alliance with the religo-political alliance the MMA. Elected to both the national assembly and provincial assembly he opted for the National assembly and was eventually to become federal interior Minister under Pervaiz Musharraf. It was to be one of the most controversial times in power, serving as Minister during the Balochistan military operation and death of Akbar Bugti to the Lal Masjid operation which was to mark him on militants hit list.

For all his political style Sherpao the person was another matter, targeted in 2007 by a devastating suicide attack near his home village he narrowly escaped. It was to the locals the moment he was elevated to something more than your usual politician. Despite his own injuries and the threats of attacks he went to the houses of the many other grieving families to condole with them. It was to be a yardstick for which politicians from that moment on were to be judged by and one which others like Bashir Bilour were to pay the ultimate price.

Elected again in the 2008 election while fending of further attacks decided to finally break away from his PPP legacy ge formed the Qaumi Watan Party by merging his party with disgruntled leftists and Pashtun nationalists.

With some support in districts like Charsadda, Buner and Dir the party faces its first test this election it could either be a spoiler costing the ANP crucial votes or be a King maker deciding which party will form the next provincial government. Either way this year Aftab Sherpao will create history in his home province, for him at least survival is victory and victory is life.
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