Pakistan's only consistently social democratic political party, with a highly principled position in favor of peace and nonviolent methods, received a stunning increase in its vote in the February, 2008 elections. The Awami National Party is now the largest in the North West Frontier Province's legislature, leading the government in that province (formerly a stronghold of Islamist parties), and will be a junior partner in the national coalition government.
The elections came a week after a bomber tried to kill off the party's core leadership at a strategy session, while a speaker was reading from the Koran.
The origins of the Awami National Party lay in the Congress party in what would later become Pakistan. The founder of the party, Badshah Khan, was known as the "Frontier Gandhi." He lead one of the most disciplined nonviolent struggles in history. This forced the British to abandon martial law in the North West Province, and to permit an elected provincial government similar to those which governed other parts of India after 1919.
The Awami National Party is led by the grandson of Badshah Khan, Asfandyar Wali Khan. Its formerly important role in the North West Frontier Province was set back by the violent response to September 11th. This resulted in its defeat in the provincial elections, resulting in a pro-Taliban government - which attempted to bring in Taliban-style social legislation, such as the banning of music and theatre. This, combined with the frequent bombings in the province, in turn led to the Awami National Party's return to power in Pakistan's recent elections.
The Awami National Party points out that part of the reason for the explosion of pro-Taliban extremism was the national government's inconsistency and manipulation of this movement. It uses them to make war in the Indian area of Kashmir, but attempts to restrain them towards Afghanistan. The party is committed to using economic incentives such as employment in public works to disarm such private armies.
In addition to having support in the Pashtun dominated areas of Pakistan, the Awami National Party's program of support for national minority rights and languages has built it a base in both the Sindh and Balochistan. It won two seats in elections to regional assemblies in both provinces.
The Awami National Party is committed to land reform, favoring the abolition of feudal-like estates and the restriction of farm ownership to units of fifty acres (a similar reform was achieved in India shortly after independence). Its program also includes support for trade union rights, minimum wage legislation, farm tenant rights, and curbs on child labor. One of its current campaigns is to stop the Kalabagh Dam, proposed on the Indus River, which would result in the flooding out of many of the farmers who form the core of its political base.
John Bacher is a writer in St. Catharine's.