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Pakistani Moderates Make Gains in Northwest at Taliban's Expense

Pakistan's Islamist political parties fared poorly in this week's elections, particularly in their traditional stronghold in the country's northwest, where the military has battled pro-Taliban militants in the past year. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad on why the parties lost and why a secular national party has taken their place.

In the last provincial elections in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, a coalition of Islamist parties - many sympathetic to the Taliban - swept into power, causing many observers to worry about a growing Islamist political force.

This week, however, the Islamist coalition called the MMA lost its majority, winning just 10 of the 96 contested seats in the provincial assembly.

Daniel Markey, a South Asia analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, says voters were angry about the coalition's leadership record.

"The MMA, as the ruling provincial party over the past five years, failed to deliver," he noted. "It didn't deliver to the more extreme members of its constituency because it didn't actually implement Shariah law, as it had promised. And it didn't deliver to the average people, because it was no less corrupt or more effective than any government that had come before it."

Other analysts interpreted the MMA's poor showing as a sign that its political rise had been an anomaly, and even Pakistanis in the religiously conservative northwest do not support the goals of the Islamist parties.

Shafqat Mahmood is a former Senator and provincial minister who says the fall of the MMA in the northwest mirrors the gains by other moderate political parties throughout the country.

"It has reaffirmed that the core of Pakistani politics, the large middle ground, is that the forces are moderate," he said. "We have always maintained that were it not for the military and were it not for Musharraf, the mullahs would not have gotten prominence at all and would have always remained in single digits as far as their support is concerned."

Mahmood says the gains by politically moderate parties in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and elsewhere could counter pro-Taliban militants, whose influence has spread in the past year from their traditional strongholds near the Afghan border to more settled parts of Pakistan.

"What it means for the NWFP is people can look forward to a rollback of Talibanization, people can look forward to a more focused, concerted approach of the government to battling terrorism," he added. "So I think only good things can come of this."

The party that benefited the most from the MMA's fall in the northwest province's assembly is the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular party that has historically advocated ethnic Pashtun interests. The group's political agenda is mainly focused on opposing a long-planned hydroelectric dam in the region and renaming the NWFP "Pashtunistan," similar to other Pakistan provinces that take their names from the regions' dominant ethnic groups.

In Islamabad Thursday, the head of ANP, Asfandyar Wali, met with leaders of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and told a crowd of reporters later that they had agreed to cooperate in the national assembly.

"We have decided that in principle, we go together, we move together for a democratic, forward-looking Pakistan," he said.

He said the two parties are in agreement on all major issues including Pakistan's role in the war against terrorism. The declaration was an indication that, unlike the Islamist parties, the ANP is more willing to work with the central government on issues that many of its constituents oppose.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a former chief secretary of the NWFP and Pakistan's former ambassador to Afghanistan. He says although people voted for the Awami Party largely as a protest vote against the MMA, their opinions about many issues, including the war on terrorism, have not changed. He says the ANP could fall from public favor as quickly as it rose.

"If they take a stand similar to the previous government took on the Taliban in the tribal areas, then I think they will become unpopular very soon," he said.

Pakistan's newly powerful opposition parties have not provided many specifics on how they plan to combat militancy in the country, but some leaders have indicated they do not support the previous government's strong reliance on military action and instead want dialogue with pro-Taliban groups.