Page last updated at 05:06 GMT, Thursday, 21 February 2008

All change in Pakistan's 'wild west'

Pakistan's north-western border region with Afghanistan is the main centre for pro-Taleban and al-Qaeda militants. But Monday's elections saw an overwhelming vote for parties that advocate secularism, or the separation of religion from politics. The BBC's M Ilyas Khan examines the implications.

ANP supporters praying
The Pashtun nationalist ANP has been celebrating victory

This is a radical departure from the 2002 elections in which a religious alliance, the MMA, scored a landslide victory in the north-west.

Islam does not make a distinction between religion and state and clerics in Pakistan have traditionally conducted political campaigns from mosques.

Some observers explain this turnaround in terms of the MMA government's failures.

Others say the MMA won in 2002 because there was no credible alternative then.

Whatever the reason, the results have led to much jubilation all across a region which has lately been slipping under the influence of militants.

The region comprises the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and a strip of semi-autonomous tribal territory that runs along the length of NWFP's western border and serves as a buffer between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The tribal areas served as a launching pad for Afghan mujahideen for their forays against the Soviet troops who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Since 2001, the area has gradually turned into an extended sanctuary for al-Qaeda and Taleban militants fighting Western troops in Afghanistan.

Islamists routed

Until recent elections, the population of the area was generally considered by several Pakistani and most foreign observers as sympathetic to Islamic militants.

But Pashtun nationalists hope that perception will change now.

ANP supporters in Karachi
The ANP says it wants more influence over security policy

"Through this election, the Pashtun people have sent a message to the world that they are neither extremists nor terrorists," the chief of the Awami National Party (ANP), Asfandyar Wali Khan, told the press at his residence in Charsadda town on Monday.

In Monday's elections, the ANP emerged as the largest party in NWFP, followed closely by slain leader Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), another major party professing secularism.

The two have also made inroads into the semi-autonomous tribal areas where the MMA-backed clerics have been nearly routed.

Analysts are interpreting the election results as a clear verdict against the Islamists.

Attacks on culture

But can the ANP and others who won in the region translate the voters' mandate into positive action?

Analysts say that challenges facing the new NWFP government would be intimidating, if not insurmountable.

We would like to be taken into confidence over the federal government's fight against militants in the region
Asfandyar Wali
ANP chief

"The new government will be faced with the twin-challenge of reviving NWFP's entertainment industry, and ensuring a successful 'war on terror' as a means of restoring peace in the region," says Zulfiqar Ali, a Peshawar based correspondent who covers the region for Dawn newspaper.

The entertainment industry suffered when the MMA government started a campaign against singers, actors, CD/DVD outlets and the advertising business.

Music and cultural shows were banned, legislation biased against women was introduced, while mobs attacked street musicians and destroyed billboards featuring female models.

Meanwhile, militants launched a prolonged bombing campaign against music stores, throwing most of them out of business.

"The new government, when it takes over power, is expected to lift the ban on cultural shows as one of its first steps," says Dr Fazal Rahim Marwat, a professor of Pakistan Studies at Peshawar University.

MMA deputy leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman

"It will also need to focus on improving the capacity of the police to protect citizens as a top priority."

But rolling back the militancy may be a problem.

Technically, while the administration in tribal areas draws upon the administrative and manpower resources of the province, it is governed by the centre.

As such, while Pakistani policies of dealing with the militants have a direct bearing on the situation in NWFP, the province has no say in tribal affairs.

ANP chief, Asfandyar Wali, wants that to change.

"We would like to be taken into confidence over the federal government's fight against militants in the region," he said in a post-election comment.

Call for support

But observers in NWFP do not think this likely.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf 3/11/07
Mr Musharraf has received a potentially catastrophic setback

Majority opinion in the region still suspects complicity between militants and Pakistan's security establishment.

Observers point to an army action in South Waziristan last month, that involved the movement of troops and the aerial bombing of militants' hideouts.

But just when some people expected a final liquidation of the militants in the area, an unannounced ceasefire came into effect and is still holding.

Dr Marwat says that a final blow to the militants can only come from the powers that created and sustained them.

He describes these powers as "elements within the federal government, and those foreign powers that have had an interest in promoting Sunni extremists in this region".

"If these powers provide the region with political and economic support, the new NWFP government would certainly be willing to provide the atmosphere," he says.

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