Provincial elections in the old tribal areas a glimmer of hope
Almost a year after the general election of July 2018, voters in Pakistan’s erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan will get another opportunity to cast their votes to elect lawmakers for the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.
The seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions of the FATA became part of mainland Pakistan after a constitutional amendment passed in May of last year, when the areas were merged with the northwestern province of KPK. On July 20th, they will vote for their representatives to a provincial assembly for the very first time.
FATA residents were already represented in the country’s National Assembly and senate with 20 seats. But now with another 21 seats in the KPK Assembly, the tribespeople will gain more representation than ever before in the country’s elected bodies. In a first, women and religious minorities in the merged districts will be represented in the provincial assembly with four and one reserved seat, respectively. A few women, out to shatter glass ceilings, are also contesting for the 16 general seats in the KPK Assembly.
Obviously, the long ignored inhabitants of the troubled ex-tribal areas who have suffered human and material losses due to militancy and military operations since 2003, are attaching great hope to the turn of events as bigger representation in the assemblies will focus attention to their problems and aspirations.
It is likely that yet another election could be staged in former FATA most likely in August when the first-ever elected local government system would be put in place in the merged districts. This election would have to be held province-wide as the term of the incumbent local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is set to end in August 2019.
It is due to the merger of FATA with KPK that the tribespeople will now get to vote three times in a year or so. It is a major democratic change in view of the fact that universal adult franchise was introduced in the tribal areas in 1997. Prior to that, the hereditary maliks, or tribal chiefs, alone had the right to vote or contest elections for the National Assembly.
Demand for reforms is widespread due to a rise in the literacy rate, the improved lifestyle resulting from money being sent by the significant number of migrant workers primarily from the Gulf states, and the impact of the mainstream and social media.
Bringing any change in FATA has faced resistance from a host of stakeholders having a vested interest. The merger with KPK was resisted for months by the tribal chiefs and two political parties aligned with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML-N. The PML-N government finally got the merger bill passed by the parliament in the last week of its five-year term in May 2019 after having spearheaded the campaign for reforms in FATA since 2017.
Earlier, there was opposition by the tribal elders and some bureaucrats to giving the right to vote to every person in the areas. In the past, there was opposition to girls’ education in parts of FATA and to the installation of an elected local government system. However, the situation has changed and the demand for reforms is widespread due to a rise in the literacy rate, the improved lifestyle resulting from money being sent by the significant number of migrant workers primarily from the Gulf states, and the impact of the mainstream and social media.
Originally, the election in the merged districts was scheduled to be held on July 2, but the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in KPK requested the Election Commission of Pakistan to delay it for 20 days due to security concerns, particularly in North Waziristan where a firing incident at a security forces’ checkpoint caused the death of 13 protestors and injured a few dozen, including five soldiers.
The Election Commission has delayed the polls for 18 days, but it is unclear if the security situation will have improved sufficiently to allow for a peaceful election. The security forces operating in the merged districts would have to protect the voters, candidates and polling stations, but they are already burdened as their mission includes hunting down the militants, fencing the long and porous border with Afghanistan and undertaking reconstruction and development work.
There are a few silver linings in ex-FATA as the election campaign continues to gain momentum. The voters in recent elections have generally rejected independent candidates, who weren’t bound by any discipline, and voted for those fielded by political parties. Also, the promised political, administrative, judicial and economic reforms are being gradually introduced following the merger. The all-powerful and much-criticised political agents, now called deputy commissioners, had their administrative, judicial and financial powers curtailed.
The tribespeople though, are still waiting for changes that vastly improve their lives, unsure what the elections ahead will truly bring and if they will actually be empowered under the new dispensation.