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Tuesday Jun 18 2019

Why provincial election in erstwhile Fata matters?

Almost a year after the general election in Pakistan in July 2018, the tribespeople in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) would again go to the polls to elect their representatives in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.

On July 25, 2018, the voters in ex-Fata had voted for the 12 seats of the national assembly along with rest of Pakistan. On July 20, 2019, they would cast ballots to elect for the first time ever 16 lawmakers on the general seats of the provincial assembly.

Yet another election would beckon the voters in the former Fata when they next vote in the local government elections. Though dates haven’t been announced yet, these polls may be held in August 2019, when the term of the incumbent local governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ends.

Getting to vote thrice in a year or so is rare in Pakistan, but the tribespeople got this opportunity due to the merger of Fata with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The merger was done under an act of parliament in last May, just at the time when the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government was completing its five-year term and the caretaker government was being installed to hold the general election. Under the 25th constitutional amendment, the merged districts of Fata were given representation for the first time in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and the election for the 16 general seats and five reserved seats, including four for women and one for the minorities was to be held within a year of the July ballot.

This is a big democratic change considering the fact that the inhabitants of Fata finally got the right to vote under the principle of universal adult franchise in 1997. Until then, only the hereditary maliks, or tribal elders, had the right to vote or contest election for the national assembly.

However, it remains to be seen how far the increased representation for the people of the merged districts, in the elected democratic forums, would empower them and serve their long-neglected interests. The voters in these remote and under-developed tribal areas, which have the lowest socio-economic indicators in Pakistan, have been generally unhappy with the performance of their parliamentarians and senators, who in turn complained they were powerless in presence of the all-powerful bureaucrats.

With the merger, the administrative system has changed and the powers of the political agents, now called deputy commissioners, have been curtailed. But would the newly elected provincial legislators, all first-timers, be able and capable to properly represent their people? This is the question being posed as the tribespeople try to figure out if they would be better off following the introduction of political, administrative, judicial and economic reforms as a result of the merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

One positive outcome of the election last July for the 12 national assembly seats in the seven merged districts and six sub-divisions, previously called Frontier Regions, was the victory of candidates put up by the political parties. Six of the winners belonged to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), three to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and one to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Though the remaining two elected MNAs, Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, contested the election as independent candidates, they are among the top leaders of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). As the PTM isn’t registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan, it couldn’t award tickets to its candidates and seek an election symbol.

In past elections, independent candidates used to win quite a few seats as political parties were generally weak in Fata. The extension of the Political Parties Act to Fata in 2011 was a factor in strengthening the presence of the parties as they could henceforth operate lawfully in the tribal areas. This made it difficult for the independents to compete with contestants backed by some of the popular political parties. The election of lawmakers fielded by the parties would bring them under the respective party’s discipline and hopefully curb the practice of floor crossing as a result of horse-trading. The previous independently elected tribal legislators were under no such discipline, and it was no secret that they changed their loyalty to support the ruling party in return for certain favours.

During Senate elections, votes were sold to the highest bidder.

Security concerns would haunt the upcoming election campaign, more so after the decision by the Election Commission of Pakistan to delay the polls on the request of the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The provincial government had cited security threats in the merged districts, particularly in North Waziristan, as the reason for its appeal to postpone the election for 20 days so that the polling could be held on July 22 instead of July 2.

The Election Commission granted the request despite protest by the opposition parties as the provincial government has the responsibility to maintain law and order, obviously with the help of the security forces, during the election campaign. However, it delayed the election for 18 days instead of 20 and fixed July 20 as the polling date.

It is obvious the result of election for the provincial assembly in the merged districts won’t impact the PTI government as it enjoys two-third majority in the legislature. The election though is a major step in mainstreaming the former Fata by giving its people representation for the first time in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.

Yusufzai is the Resident Editor of The News International in Peshawar