Fed up with violence and broken promises, voters in Pakistan's deeply conservative northwest have thrown out the Islamist parties that ruled this province for five years — a clear sign that Pakistanis rejected religious extremism in a region where al-Qaida and the Taliban have sought refuge.
Instead, the voters here in North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan, gave their support in Monday's national election to secular parties that promised to pave the streets, create jobs and bring peace to the turbulent province through dialogue and economic incentives to the extremists.
"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 West when they elected a provincial government dominated by a coalition of pro-Taliban clerics — the United Action Alliance.
The alliance rode to victory on the crest of public outrage over the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. They also profited from a bid by President Pervez Musharraf to sideline the two mainstream political parties.
Musharraf's government laid down educational standards for candidates that allowed graduates of Quranic schools — long a breeding ground for extremism — to run for office but banned veteran politicians who lacked university degrees.
With hard-line clerics firmly in control, provincial authorities looked away as al-Qaida and Taliban fighters fled into the province to escape U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and expanded their influence throughout the region — even to the gates of the provincial capital of Peshawar.
Vast areas of the northwest were transformed into a war zone, where more than 80,000 Pakistani soldiers sought to crush a burgeoning Islamic insurgency. U.S. officials say al-Qaida has regrouped in the lawless area and extended its reach into the rest of the province and beyond.
'They made false promises'
Much of the trouble occurred in the autonomous tribal areas, which are administered from Islamabad rather than by the provincial government.
But the religious parties headquartered elsewhere in the northwest wield considerable influence in the tribal region, in part through funding religious schools linked to extremist groups.
Powerless to stop the militants, local police stood by as tribal leaders opposed to the Taliban were assassinated and owners of video and music stores received threats to close their businesses or face death.
"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."
On election day, voters showed they had had enough.
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.
Bread and butter issues favored
With the count almost complete, the Awami party has won at least 33 of the 99 contested seats in the provincial assembly, and it can probably count on the support of Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party and other secular groups for a solid majority.
By contrast, the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema Islam party, or JUI, led by Fazlur Rehman and the chief party in the governing Islamist coalition, took only nine seats.
"The NWFP result demonstrated what the voters say to religious parties and extremism when their will is not subverted through a rigged election," Dawn, a respected Pakistani newspaper, said in an editorial Wednesday, suggesting the Islamists fared well in 2002 with government help.
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 outside Peshawar. "The Taliban are over there not far from our area, but the people will never allow them to come over here. We don't want the violence."
Not far from Ali's store, 25-year old Rafiullah said he voted for the religious parties in 2002 but this time cast his ballot for the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, which is expected to be part of the provincial coalition government.
"We voted for the (Islamists) before because they promised to change things, to make life better for us, to end the corruption and to bring a good life. But they didn't," he said. "They just brought restrictions. And look — we are afraid of bombs and rockets all the time."
Despite revulsion against the militants, there is little support here for the U.S.-backed war against terror — especially if it involves American soldiers here.
"We don't support any foreign army in Pakistan," said Khan, the retired soldier.
The provincial leader of the Awami party, Afrasiab Khattak, also wants the Pakistani army, dominated by ethnic Punjabis and considered foreigners by the local Pashtuns, to leave the tribal areas.
Khattak said the army had worsened the situation by sending mixed signals to the militants —long using them as proxies to fight India in disputed Kashmir while now striking at them on Pakistani soil.
"We have to make the Pashtuns who are involved in extremism sit down and we have to talk to them," Khattak said. "Most of those who are involved are absolutely mistaken, misguided and brainwashed."
Instead, Khattak wants to reach out to the militants with incentives such as jobs and educational opportunities. Those who continue to fight should be dealt with through "good intelligence and strategic strikes not brute force," he said, adding his government would also not allow U.S. soldiers to be deployed in Pakistan.
"This is not our war," Khattak added. "It is imposed upon us. We don't want any foreigners on our land. As Pashtuns, we can solve the problem of extremism."