By Aamir Latif
Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province has had a unique history that it never reelected any party for the second consecutive term.
But the right-wing Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party of the country's former cricket star vows to change the history in the upcoming elections.
The populist party seems to emerge as the majority party in the province on July 25 in terms of both national and provincial assembly seats, according to latest surveys and analysts.
The KP has 99 provincial and 39 national assembly general seats. Twenty four additional seats have been added to the current strength of the provincial assembly following the merger of federally administered tribal region (FATA) along the Afghanistan border with KP through a constitutional amendment.
But elections on these seats will be held next year due to some infrastructural and administrative issues.
The PTI had formed a coalition government in the once militancy-hit province bordering Afghanistan in 2013 elections.
The people in the streets of Peshawar -- the provincial capital -- and adjoining districts of Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, and Noshehra by and large second the surveys.
According to the two latest surveys conducted by local think tanks -- Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency ( PLDAT) and Pulse -- the PTI enjoys the support of 57 per cent voters in the province.
The party is especially strong in the central KP, which includes Peshawar, Charsadda, Swabi, Noshehra, and Mardan districts. Whereas, it has to grit its way through a difficult challenge by a five-party religious alliance Muttehida Majlis Amal (MMA), local nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), and Pakistan Muslim Leage- Nawaz (PML-N) in southern, northern and Hazara region of the province, according to local analysts.
"It is clear that the PTI is going to be the largest party in the upcoming elections from KP. All the international and local surveys are in PTI's favor", Imtiaz Hussein, a Peshawar-based political analyst, said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
"I believe the PTI will be the first ever party to form the government in KP since 1970 ( the year Pakistan's first general elections were held)", Hussain said. "However, the PTI may need one or two coalition partners to form the government," he added.
The PTI had won 36 out of 99 provincial assembly general seats in2013 elections , and formed the government with the support of Jamat-e-Islami (JI), one of the country's mainstream religious parties, and a regional nationalist Quami Watan Party.
JI is now part of MMA together with Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) of former opposition leader Maulana Fazl ur Rehman.
JI and JUI's combined votes were slightly over 21 per cent compared to PTI's 20 per cent in 2013 elections. But since they had contested the polls separately, they lost a number of seats with a narrow margin.
Minus PTI formula
Arshad Aziz Malik, another analyst from Peshawar, slightly differs with Hussain.
He agreed that the PTI would be the single largest party, but he said it is not necessary that they could form the government.
According to his assessment, the PTI may grab 30 to 35 seats followed by MMA (20 to 25), PML-N (10 to 15) and ANP ( 10 to 15).
"The opposition parties as a whole are likely to get more seats than PTI. There is a strong possibility that they get united and form a coalition government", he told Anadolu Agency.
Ismail Khan, another analyst from Peshawar, agrees with Malik.
"As far as the single largest party in the forthcoming elections (in KP) is concerned, that will be PTI. But I doubt it would get enough seats to single handedly form the government," Khan , who is also the resident editor of the country's largely circulated English daily Dawn, told Anadolu Agency.
"And it seems difficult in given circumstances for PTI to find a coalition partner. Therefore, the possibility of a minus PTI coalition government cannot be completely ruled out", he said.
PTI's key advantage over other opposition parties, Malik observed, was its presence and popularity across the province, which its rivals lacked.
"It's not that the PTI is strong. It's just that its rivals are weak", he maintained"
"All the opposition parties have their respective pockets. Unlike PTI, They do not enjoy a general popularity throughout the province," he opined.
MMA is focusing on southern and northern districts of Bannu, Kohat, Karak, Lakki Marwst, Dera Ismail Khan, Swat, Malakand, Chitral, Dir and Buner -- its traditional strongholds. Whereas, ANP, PML(N) and left-wing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) too have some strong pockets in the two regions.
PML(N) is mainly relying on Hazara region, where the three-time premier Nawaz Sharif's party is very strong.
In addition to other advantages, Malik sees PTI as the only party launching its campaigning "freely.”
"All other parties have gone on back foot following recent terrorist attacks and threats," he said, referring to a fresh wave of suicide attacks targeting MMA, ANP and Balochistan Awami Party election rallies in KP and southwestern Balochistan province that killed over 150 people in last one week.
The bombings, which underscored the fragility of a recent improvement in law and order have forced the PPP, MMA, ANP and PML(N) to restrict their campaigns, especially in KP and Balochistan.
PTI's another advantage, according to Imtiaz Hussain, is the inclusion of over 4 million new youth voters in the electoral process, which can help PTI put dent to MMA and PML(N) in even their traditional strongholds.
Hussain estimated the PTI 's strength in the new provincial assembly between 45 and 50 followed by MMA's 20 to 25 seats.
Now or never
Malik opined that the PTI's main focus was on 39 national assembly seats from KP compared to the provincial assembly seats.
"If you see the candidates' list, you will find heavyweights both in terms of wealth and political influence contesting on national assembly seats. Whereas, the party's majority candidates for the provincial assembly candidates are little-known or less influential party workers", he asserted.
"Imran Khan wants to win maximum national assembly seats from KP to fulfil his longtime ambition to become prime minister."
"It's now or never for the aging Khan. He cannot afford to lose this last chance," Malik maintained estimating that PTI could win 20 out of 39 national assembly seats from KP.
Khan requires at least 172 out of 342-member lower house -- the National Assembly -- ( 272 directly elected and 70 reserved) to become prime minister.
Punjab, the country's largest and richest province has the highest number of seats in the lower house i.e. 148 followed by Sindh (48), KP (39) , Balochistan (18) , FATA (12) and federal capital Islamabad (3).