By Zia Ur Rehman

Feb 8-14, 2013

For the first time in the country’s history, political parties will participate in general elections in the militant-infested tribal areas expected in May this year.

In August 2011, President Asif Ali Zardari introduced a regulation to amend the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) under Article 247 of the Constitution and also extended the Political Parties Act (PPA) 2002 to the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), allowing political parties to operate there as they do elsewhere in Pakistan.

Prior to the extension, FATA’s 12 members in the National Assembly and eight members in the Senate were elected independently and could not join any political party. The same restrictions applied to its senators. In the wake of the extension of the act, tribal candidates for the first time will be allotted symbols of their respective political parties in the next general elections. Until the introduction of adult franchise in 1996, the elections in tribal areas were based on selective voting, meaning that some 35,000 maliks (elders) were entitled to cast vote.

The terrain of FATA lies between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Balochistan and the neighboring Afghanistan. It consists of seven tribal agencies – Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan and South Waziristan – and six Frontier Regions (FRs) – FR Peshawar, FR Kohat, FR Bannu, FR Lakki Marwat, FR Tank and FR DI Khan. The region has a total area of 27,220 square kilometers, and is almost entirely inhabited by Pashtun tribes.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and especially the US arrival in 2001, the region has become a hub of militancy. The area is considered to be the epicenter of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a major source of international terrorism. All the seven tribal agencies and adjacent FRs have been affected by the rise of militancy and the military operations carried out in response.

“The people of FATA are very thankful to President Zardari who has lifted a 64-year ban last year on activities of political parties in seven tribal agencies of FATA,” said Akhundzada Chattan, a parliamentarian elected from Bajaur Agency and a leader of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He said the reforms would not only pave the way for political and economic empowerment of tribal people but also help in eradicating militancy in the region.

“The PPA has encouraged political parties to boost their efforts for politicking,” said Jan Achakzai, a political analyst who monitors FATA affairs very closely. “Candidates from various agencies have already started using billboards, sloganeering, pamphlets, and openly showing their political affiliations.”

The Awami National Party (ANP), the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) are the key political parties operating in FATA. Political observers agree that the JUI-F is the only political party that has a strong organizational structure and support in FATA, which mainly relies on a large network of madrassas and mosques. In October, the JUI-F formed a 32-member committee consisting of leaders from the seven tribal agencies and six FRs of FATA under the leadership of Mufti Abdul Shakoor for the preparation of the general elections.

But influential ‘independent’ politicians who win the elections in FATA on the basis of tribal strength and wealth are not happy with the extension of the PPA in the tribal areas. “The political process in FATA will ultimately stop the buying and selling of votes in the tribal areas,” said Gul Muhammad Mamond, an activist from Bajaur Agency.

Achakzai believes that independent candidates will remain an important factor in the coming elections, but they will be under increasing pressure from opponents backed by political parties. Some independent politicians have already started lobbying for tickets from political parties.

But many political parties are reluctant to start organizational and electoral activities in the volatile region. In the year and a half since the PPA was extended to the tribal areas, only religious political parties have been able to hold public rallies or even indoor political meetings.

In October, PTI chief Imran Khan led a rally against US drone attacks to Tank but couldn’t enter South Waziristan. Even President Zardari, who is also the co-chairperson of Pakistan’s largest political party and a direct administrator of FATA, has not visited the region.

Political leaders and activists in FATA fear they may not be able to run election campaigns because of security threats. They believe Taliban militants might influence the elections with terror, and security agencies have repeatedly warned the political and religious figures of the KP province and tribal areas of threats to their lives.

“All political parties are facing such challenges,” Achakzai said. Liberal political parties may not be able to run proper election campaigns in FATA because of security threats. That will help groups or candidates that are soft on Taliban militants,” said an ANP leader from North Waziristan. He said that leaders of ANP and PPP are cut off from the people because of security fears, and that is sending the voters away towards right-wing political parties such as JUI-F, PTI, JI and the PML-N.

In the 2008 elections, polling was conducted on 11 seats of the National Assembly in FATA, excluding NA-42 of South Waziristan, which consists of Mehsud areas. This seat has been lying vacant because of the law and order situation and the ongoing military operation in the constituency.

Because of military operations against Taliban militants in various tribal agencies, especially South Waziristan and Khyber, the local population has been displaced from their areas. Political observers fear that over 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are facing disenfranchisement in the coming general election if they are not allowed to cast votes through special measures. “Due to the security situation, many IDPs are prohibited from returning home. These voters should be provided with an alternative mechanism for voting in their home constituencies,” said the Joint Committee on FATA Reforms, a committee established in 2010 to identify and lobby for reforms through building consensus and promoting dialogue in the tribal areas. Ismail Mehsud, a leader of ANP, said the Election Commission of Pakistan should make arrangements for holding elections in volatile areas like NA-42 or Khyber Agency at alternative places, including Karachi, where the displaced people from these tribal areas live.