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Saturday Feb 09 2019

Can Usman Buzdar and Mahmood Khan last till 2020?

A section of the press in Pakistan has been recently speculating that Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman AK Buzdar, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mahmood Khan could be replaced in the next few months due to their lacklustre performance.

However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has stood by his chief ministers in the two provinces where his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), is fully in power in the face of criticism that Usman Buzdar and Mahmood Khan weren’t doing a good job.

Defending Buzdar, the prime minister said he would turn out to be the best chief minister of Punjab.

The prime minister also came to the defence of Mahmood Khan by arguing that he was a simple and honest man.

Both were chosen by Imran Khan when he became the prime minister after the PTI won the July 2018 general election. Even if Usman Buzdar and Mahmood Khan aren’t up to the mark, the prime minister has to defend them as he cannot concede barely six months after coming to power that his choice was wrong. Replacing them after a brief stint in power could discredit the PTI and raise questions about the decision-making process being followed by the prime minister.

Buzdar’s nomination took everyone by surprise as Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous province and a political party that does well there in elections is better placed to rule the country. He is a political novice, as a first-timer member of the provincial assembly. He is also a newcomer in the PTI having joined it about two months before the national polls last July. As an ethnic Baloch from the small Buzdar tribe, he doesn’t have the clout to properly manage the affairs of a large province like Punjab. Besides, he is from the politically less important Dera Ghazi Khan district, in the relatively under-developed southern Punjab.

Seemingly, Buzdar is at a disadvantage to meet the standards set by his predecessor Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). It is widely believed that Sharif during his long stint in power was generally able to deliver as chief minister of Punjab, due to his authoritative style and administrative experience. Sharif also got a free hand to rule Punjab on account of the unprecedented support from Nawaz Sharif, his elder brother and three-time prime minister of Pakistan.

The chief minister of Punjab would need even more support from the prime minister, and the federal government to run the province, as he lacks experience and doesn’t have the self-assured authority of Sharif. Moreover, he would have to balance the different centres of power in the province, due to the presence of influential figures in the ruling PTI and in the cabinet.

Mahmood Khan too was a surprise choice as chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in presence of politically heavyweight aspirants such as Pervez Khattak, Mohammad Atif Khan and Asad Qaiser. He was a compromise candidate as Imran Khan wanted to shift former Chief Minister Pervez Khattak and former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser to the centre where the PTI needed every single vote of an elected legislator to gain a majority in the National Assembly. Atif Khan too would have been moved to the federal government had he won his National Assembly seat from his native Mardan.

In the end, it became a straight contest between Atif Khan and Mahmood Khan and the latter was picked up due to sheer luck. It helped his cause that he wasn’t controversial and didn’t have a lobby backing him. Mahmood Khan also had the advantage of being the first chief minister from Swat, and rest of the six districts of Malakand division, as the chief ministers of the province in the past usually belonged to the districts of Peshawar, Charsadda, Nowshera and Mardan located in the fertile and relatively prosperous Peshawar valley or occasionally to Hazara or the southern districts.

Buzdar enjoyed the same advantage, as chief ministers of Punjab usually came from central Punjab. Most districts in southern Punjab, including Dera Ghazi Khan, to which he belongs, are less developed and have faced neglect for years. Its population is largely Seraiki speaking and there has been a long-standing demand for carving out a separate province by dividing Punjab. The PTI government is promising it would create a new province in southern Punjab in consultation with opposition political parties.

Neither Usman Buzdar nor Mahmood Khan had any inkling that they would become the chief minister of their provinces. They were as surprised as everybody else when they were chosen ahead of the frontline candidates for the prized job. However, they appear determined to prove their detractors wrong by applying themselves to their high-pressure position as chief executive of two important provinces.

If Punjab is big and difficult to govern, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa poses a bigger challenge as it now includes the militancy-hit Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) that was merged with it in May last year. The seven erstwhile tribal agencies of Fata, now re-designated as tribal districts, continue to pose security challenges and remain the most under-developed region of Pakistan. The responsibility to facilitate the judicial, administrative and security transition of former Fata to become part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has fallen on Mahmood Khan, who during PTI’s previous five-year term in the province had the reputation of a laidback politician content to work at his own pace.

Imran Khan’s reputation is also at stake as he selected Usman Buzdar and Mahmood Khan ignoring advice that Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ought to have seasoned politicians at the helm of affairs. The prime minister’s other choices, including the governors of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and certain members of the federal cabinet, also raised eyebrows. It would be a political setback for him if his chief ministers in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are unable to perform well and are replaced.

Yusufzai is the Resident Editor of The News International in Peshawar

Note: The views expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Geo News or the Jang Group.