Leaders and supporters of a civil rights movement campaigning against alleged abuses by the security forces and the Taliban in western Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland are preparing to launch a new political party to appeal to a broader secular base nationwide.
Members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which started in 2018, have confirmed to Gandhara they are launching a political party that will count among its leaders a current PTM lawmaker and former lawmakers from the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Leaders of the party -- yet to be named and formally registered -- say their aim is to strengthen the PTM’s campaign against rights abuses. By entering the mainstream of electoral politics, they hope to “reorient” Pakistan.
“There has been a prolonged debate within the PTM about remaining a loose people’s resistance movement around their limited demands or evolving into a political party with a broad political program,” former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, one of the party’s central figures, told Gandhara. The idea, he says, grew out of requests from PTM supporters who wanted to see the popular platform turn its grievances into political action.
“The party will keep on supporting the PTM and its demands,” he added.
Sources close to PTM leader Manzoor Pashteen told Gandhara they will issue a response only after the party is formally launched. But the development represents a formal split in the movement’s leadership and support base, which had debated the issue of getting into politics soon since its inception.
While some PTM leaders took part in the 2018 parliamentary election, the movement relied instead on vocal street protests and social media campaigns to pressure Islamabad into ending alleged abuses such as targeted killings, forced disappearances, aggressive searches, and the failure to clear landmines in Khyber Pakhtunkwa’s western districts, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed and million displaced during nearly two decades of Taliban attacks and military operations in Islamabad’s war on terrorism.
While occasionally acknowledging the PTM’s demands, Islamabad and the Pakistani military in particular has viewed the movement with suspicion. Over the past three years, its leaders and supporters have faced near constant persecution. Most senior leaders have been jailed or face sedition and terrorism charges, and hundreds of supporters have been detained in periodic sweeps while many have lost jobs and businesses because of their activism.
An Ideological Divide
The hardships posed by the persecution have presented a dilemma for PTM leaders. The PTM’s diverse support base -- mostly made up of members of Pashtun ethnonationalist parties and intelligentsia -- failed to agree on the formation of an official organization due to ideological differences about how to address problems faced by the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic minority in the country of 220 million people.
Khattak says the party’s intention is to preserve and strengthen Pakistan’s federal parliamentary democracy. “We are in touch with progressive democratic elements and people’s democratic movements in other parts of Pakistan and hope to work together with them,” he said.
Khattak says the new party will be part of the opposition and one of its major aims will be to replace the current “hybrid” system of government, which critics accuse of being covertly run by the powerful military. This echoes the campaign of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance of 11 major political parties who accuse Prime Minister Imran Khan of being a political front for the powerful military, which they accuse of rigging the 2018 election in favor of Khan. Both the civilian administration and the military reject such accusations. The military has maintained it has no involvement in politics.
“We want to replace this hybrid system with a new social and democratic system that will pave the way for the youth to lead the state and society,” he said of his party’s goals. “We aim to empower women as equal human beings, ensure the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and want to adopt an independent foreign policy with an emphasis on peace and economic cooperation with neighboring countries.”
In addition to Khattak, the new party’s leadership includes PTM leader and lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, former lawmakers Latif Afridi and Basheer Ahmad Matta, and women’s rights advocates and former lawmakers Bushra Gohar and Jamila Gilani.
The defeat of Khan’s ruling Pakistan’s Tehreek-e Insaf political party’s candidate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s assembly’s consistency by-election last week amid an internal revolt is seen as bellwether of a possible political realignment in the region.
The party’s launch ahead of crucial local elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa later this year will test its strength and measure its popular appeal in a highly competitive political space. However, the emergence of the new party might ultimately weaken the PTM by dividing in leaders and cadres despite initial calls for preserving the amorphous movement’s unity.