The 2013 election marks a record for Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, the leader and founder of the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP); a Pakhtun nationalist political group. If he wins his seat (NA-8, Charsadda -11) again, it will be his eighth successive electoral victory since 1977. Against all odds, Sherpao also has survived frequent militant attacks against himself.
While repeated election wins is commonplace in many parts of Punjab and Sindh, it is the exception in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P). The previous record of successive electoral wins was held by the late Arbab Jehangir.
Elections in the province are far more fluid than other parts of the country. Many local and national leaders have suffered surprise election defeats when they have not been on the right side of the electorate (or the brokers).
Aftab’s elder brother, Hayat Khan Sherpao, was one of the founding members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a close lieutenant of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Hayat Khan was killed in 1975 in a bomb blast in University of Peshawar.
Contesting elections for the first time in 1977, Aftab Sherpao defeated Sherbaz Khan Mazari of the National Democratic Party (a precursor to the Awami National Party or ANP).
Sherpao’s political career has been especially renowned for his success in wooing independents. Although well equipped with a Machiavellian ability to outmanoeuvre friends and opponents in order to cling to power, Sherpao lacked the charisma to reach out to a more national audience.
Aftab Sherpao’s victory celebrations for his 1977 win were brief as after Zia-ul Haq’s coup he was imprisoned on several occasions for protesting against the military regime. Sticking with 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 when Aftab Sherpao contested and won from Peshawar’s NA-1 constituency against Ghulam Bilour from the ANP and also won the provincial seat. This would mark the beginning of an unbroken series of victories from his home village.
Sherpao was elected from NA-1 and from Charsaada to the provincial assembly in 1988. He was made the chief minister; however when Nawaz Sharif took over at the centre in 1990, Sherpao became the opposition leader in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.
The PPP was re-elected in 1993 as the largest party in the province, however, he narrowly lost the vote to become chief minister to the Pakistan Muslim League and the ANP nominee Pir Sabir Shah.
Not one to sit by the wayside, with the help of president Farooq Leghari, he controversially brought over independents and serving MPA’s of the treasury bench to topple the government, through governor rule.
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 the issue divided the two allies PML and ANP; 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 period Aftab Sherpao began to develop differences with Benazir Bhutto and finally broke away from the main PPP forming his own faction called the PPP (Sherpao)
Sherpao faced multiple corruption cases with the arrival of the Musharraf government but managed to outsmart the National Accountability Bureau and went into self-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, Aftab Sherpao correctly judged the mood in his home province and struck up an alliance with the religo-political Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal. Elected to both the National Assembly and provincial assembly, he opted for the National Assembly and was eventually to become federal interior minister under Pervez Musharraf.
It was to be one of the most controversial times in power to serve as an interior minister – from the Balochistan military operation, the death of Akbar Bugti to the Lal Masjid operation which promptly placed 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, an attack which he narrowly escaped. It was then when he was elevated to something more than your usual politician, especially in the eyes of the locals.
Despite his own injuries and threats of more attacks, he went to the houses of the many other grieving families to condole with them. From this moment on, it would be a yardstick by which politicians were to be judged by – a standard for which others like Bashir Bilour were to pay the ultimate price.
Elected again in the 2008 elections while fending off further attacks, Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao decided to finally break away from his PPP legacy and formed the Qaumi Watan Party by merging his party with disgruntled leftists and Pakhtun nationalists.
With some support in districts like Charsadda, Buner and Dir, the party faces its first test this election. The QWP could either be the ‘spoiler’, costing the ANP crucial votes or be the ‘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 Sherpao, at the very least, survival is victory and victory is life.
-the writer is founder of the web site QissaKhwani. http://www.qissa-khwani.com co-manages the twitter account @qissakhwani
Published in The Express Tribune, April 1st, 2013.