- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2008

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (AP) — Fed up with violence and economic hardship, voters in the religiously conservative northwest have thrown out the Islamist parties that ruled this province for five years.

Instead, voters in turbulent North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, gave their support to secular parties that promised to pave the streets, create jobs and bring peace through dialogue and economic incentives to the extremists.

That may conflict with U.S. pressure to step up the fight against militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“They didn’t do anything for the people,” Bokhari Shah, 65, said of the religious parties. “They have done nothing to help the people, and we are afraid to even come out from our homes because of all these bomb blasts.”

Five years ago, voters in this mostly Pashtun province — many of them from the same ethnic group as the Afghan Taliban — set off alarm bells in the U.S. when they elected a provincial government dominated by a coalition of pro-Taliban clerics.

The alliance rode to victory on the crest of public outrage over the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, not only winning control of the North West Frontier but taking 12 percent of the vote in national parliament balloting as well.

“They made false promises. They said they would give us education, food and jobs, but they didn’t give us anything. They were all lies,” said retired soldier Mohammed Akram Shah. “I am from a village of more than 30 homes, and we don’t have any electricity even after five years.”

Vast areas of the northwest have been transformed into a war zone, where more than 80,000 Pakistani soldiers sought to crush a burgeoning Islamic insurgency.

The province has been hit by repeated suicide attacks and bombings, with at least 75 persons killed in the past week alone.

U.S. officials think al Qaeda has regrouped in the lawless area and Osama bin Laden may be hiding in remote areas near the Afghan border.

The new provincial government is expected to be led by the Awami National Party, a left-leaning, secular group that backed the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan in its war against U.S. and Pakistani-backed Islamic guerrillas in the 1980s.

With the count almost complete, the Awami party has won at least 33 of the 99 contested seats in the provincial assembly, and probably can count on the support of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and other secular groups for a solid majority.

By contrast, the pro-Taliban Jamiat e Ulema Islami party, led by Fazlur Rehman and nearly all that remains of the governing Islamist coalition, took nine seats. In 2002, the religious bloc took 67 seats.

Party official Abdul Jalil Jan blamed the loss on a decision by several Islamist factions to boycott the ballot, contending any election under President Pervez Musharraf could not be free and fair.

“We have not done poorly,” he said. “People have voted for us but … there was a mood for change even though our government has done well regarding public welfare during its five-year tenure.”

But bread and butter issues — and not Islamic fervor — appeared to motivate many voters who turned away from the Islamists.

“People were angry and disappointed,” said Amjad Ali, who sells grain in a cement-box store in Bazit Khiel, nine miles south of Peshawar.

“The Taliban are over there not far from our area,” he said, gesturing toward nearby hills. “But the people will never allow them to come over here. We don’t want the violence.”

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