Secular nationalists sweep Swat by-election

Provincial election is seen as litmus test for the Pakistani government, which reclaimed the region from Taliban six months ago.

MINGORA, PAKISTAN // Secular nationalists romped to victory in the election held in the Swat Valley - first since it was wrested from the Taliban six months ago. The by-election on Thursday for the "PF-83 Swat-4" constituency of the provincial assembly of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province was a litmus test for the government as it encompasses the Kanju and Matta areas that were previously the de facto headquarters of the Pakistani Taliban faction led by Maulana Fazlullah, including his seminary at Imam Dheri.

The by-election was necessitated by the assassination on December 1 of Shamsher Ali Khan, the winning candidate of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), in the general election held in February 2008. Khan was the first elected representative to have returned to Swat after a successful army operation against militants last summer. Residents said despite advice to have all his visitors searched for security reasons, he refused to do so thinking that would offend the electorate.

The decision proved to be his undoing when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb during an Eid celebration at his home. The ANP, which leads a ruling coalition in the NWFP, had been initially reluctant to hold the by-election so soon, but was overruled by the federal election commission, an independent constitutional body headed by a retired Supreme Court judge. Voter turnout was modest because of bad weather and security precautions, as part of which all roads into the constituency were blocked and access was restricted to local residents.

Voters wore photo identity cards with colour-coded strings denoting their area of domicile. Although 33 of the 80 polling stations in the constituency had been reserved for women, their turnout was negligible because of an agreement among candidates to exclude them, local residents said. "Seclusion of women is a tradition in Swat and they have rarely ever voted," said Usman Ali, a Kanju resident who lives near a polling station.

The women's booth was empty, although polling was brisk at the two male booths, with an estimated turnout of 40 per cent, according to election officials. Security personnel were on high alert following intelligence warnings that three suicide bombers had been deployed to disrupt the voting, local journalists said. "We were all on tenterhooks because only one of the bombers was apprehended," said Rashid Iqbal, the editor of Chand, a daily Urdu-language newspaper based in Mingora, Swat's commercial capital.

"If the Taliban had succeeded in executing one suicide attack, it would have been a major setback for the entire population of Swat." Intelligence sources in Islamabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed the threat, saying a team of the military's Inter Services Intelligence directorate had been sent to Swat to pursue suspected militants and suicide bombers. Khan's younger brother, Rehmat Ali Khan, was elected on the back of the sympathy vote, swollen by the backing of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

The ANP is a coalition partner of the PPP in the federal government as well as the provincial governments of Sindh and the NWFP. Results showed the ANP candidate had a substantial lead over his rivals from the so-called Quaid faction of the Pakistan Muslim League and the Tehrik-i-Insaf, a reformist party led by Imran Khan, a former captain of the Pakistani cricket team. However, the fear of Taliban attacks was apparent in the PF-83 constituency

Fayyaz Khan, the candidate of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League faction led by Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister, was arrested on January 8 upon his arrival from Islamabad, where he lives, because of his suspected links with the Taliban, party members said. His three-day detention, because his brother was allegedly a Taliban financier, prevented him from filing a nomination on January 10. The party subsequently boycotted the election, although local residents said Fayyaz Khan had privately supported the ANP candidate.

Trailing in the fourth position was Hussain Ahmed Kanju, a former minister in the 2002 to 2007 provincial government, formed by a coalition of religious parties. Residents said Mr Kanju was popular because he had overseen a significant amount of development work in the constituency while in office. Even his agents at polling station No23 said that they expected him to fare poorly because voters blamed the religious parties for allowing the Taliban threat to fester unchallenged until the outbreak of insurgency in August 2008.