A GROUP of individuals representing 10 political parties and brought together by an NGO under the banner of Political Parties’ Joint Committee on Fata Reforms has produced a set of recommendations for the Election Commission of Pakistan to help ensure the next general elections in Fata are more transparent, fair and representative than polls held earlier in the region. To the extent that a voter registration drive and increasing the number of polling stations will prevent the disenfranchisement of voters in an area that historically has seen some of the lowest turnouts in the country, the recommendations are sensible. However, there is a more fundamental area of concern that the recommendations did not touch upon: security. With military operations ongoing in some parts of Fata and militants present in every single tribal agency — though their presence varies in intensity — elections in Fata will be trickier than ever.
Consider the evidence. Maulana Mirajuddin, the MNA representing the Mehsud area of South Waziristan, was killed in May 2010. Over two and a half years later, a by-election is yet to be held. Bara in Khyber is beset by similarly intractable security problems, as is Orakzai, where a military operation is ongoing. North Waziristan remains, of course, a security nightmare about which little has been done. But the problem is not just of disenfranchisement of voters: even where elections will be possible, voters’ choice will be severely restricted. The TTP has made clear that secular parties like the ANP and the PPP are major targets of the militants, making it next to impossible for the candidates of those parties to run a proper campaign in what will be the first party-based election in Fata. With both of those parties effectively sidelined if security does not improve — and they do have significant support in the tribal belt — the door will open further for right-wing religious parties, complicating the already immense difficulties in crafting an effective strategy to fight militancy.
Part of the solution may lie in another one of the recommendations of the Fata reforms committee: allowing absentee voting for IDPs. In the vacant seat of South Waziristan in particular, absentee voting along the lines of that permitted in Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK elections would make much sense. If extended to allow Fata’s electorate to cast their votes in settled districts as an alternative, the pressure on parties like the ANP and the PPP could ease somewhat. But such measures will not fundamentally alter the risks candidates will have to confront; in the absence of overall improved security, elections in Fata could be more unrepresentative than ever.