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The National Assembly on Thursday passed a constitutional amendment seeking the much-awaited merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) with a 229-1 vote in favour.

Lawmakers from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) chose to walk out from the assembly ahead of the vote. Dawar Kundi from the PTI was the sole dissenting vote in the final count.

A session of the Senate has been called on Friday (tomorrow) to review the bill and give assent.

Read: Integrating Fata

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas represent the gateway to the plains of the subcontinent through seven passes: Bajaur, Dir, Khyber, Mohmand, Peiwar Kotal in Kurram Agency, the Bolan Pass and Gomal in South Waziristan.

The long-awaited mainstreaming of the tribal areas has been in the works for four years, pointed out Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi during the session.

PM Abbasi, who spoke after Imran Khan's address in the house, thanked the opposition benches for voting in favour of the "historic" bill.

Referring to Imran Khan's speech — in which the PTI chief had brought up rigging, money laundering and the Panama Papers case — the prime minister said he did not want to divert attention from the landmark bill by talking about unrelated matters.

"Imran Khan should not have touched upon controversial matters today," he said. "Today, we [parliament] have proved that consensus can be formed [on issues of national importance]."

"Our effort — all our efforts — should be to have consensus on all national issues," he added.

Government, opposition laud parliament for coming together

Khan, who had addressed the parliament right before Abbasi, had also congratulated parliament on coming together despite the differences between the ruling and the opposition parties.

"The tribal people want immediate justice, just like under the system we have in KP," he said.

But Khan, who had appeared in parliament after two years, soon deviated from the topic at hand in what seemed to be a bid to explain his prolonged absence from the house.

Much to the growing irritation of the treasury benches, Khan began by saying his party had staged the 2014 sit-in after parliament's failure to listen to its grievances.

"We did not get any response from the National Assembly and other institutions," he said.

"After a year [of waiting for a response] we held the sit-in," he said, explaining that "as a democrat" it was his right to stage protests and agitate for the people's rights.

"And then there was Panama — is asking for accountability something undesirable?" he asked amidst uproar, before chiding the lawmakers present for turning a blind eye.

"I am proud we brought a corrupt prime minister to justice for laundering money," he said. As the ruling party's lawmakers continued to protest vocally, he said at one point: "Have the courage to listen to me."

"A member sitting here [on the treasury benches] had once said to me: 'koi sharam hoti hai, koi haya hoti hai'. I see that that member is no longer here today," he said, referring to erstwhile foreign minister Khawaja Asif, who was recently removed from office for concealing assets.

"Standing against money laundering was the right thing to do," he said. "We are proud of our struggle."

The PTI subsequently walked out.

Opposition to KP-Fata merger

After months of wrangling with coalition partners and the opposition over its clauses, the bill was finally presented by Law Minister Chaudhary Mahmood Bashir Virk with only eight days remaining in the tenure of the National Assembly. The voting was held on each clause separately.

During the vote 229 members of the assembly assented to the introduction of the bill while 11 others voted against it.

As expected, JUI-F and PkMAP opposed the bill's introduction, while MQM announced its grudging support after expressing its reservations.

MQM's Dr Farooq Sattar said that his party is supporting the bill "for the sake of political unity". However, he clarified that his party still believes that Fata should be turned into a separate province.

Read: Basic facilities more important for Fata than merger: PM

He also called for the formation of 19 provinces — including Karachi — on administrative grounds before recalling that the MQM had put forth bills for the creation of provinces of South Punjab, Hazara and Fata.

The MQM leader also demanded that there should be a referendum in Fata regarding it being considered a new province. "We fear that if Fata is merged with KP, it will get difficult to create a new province in the future," Dr Sattar said.

Representing PkMAP in the NA, Abdul Qahar defended his party's position and said that they had always termed the bill controversial. He added that the people of Fata should be given the right to decide about their own future.

He said that the people of Fata want their own province, their own chief minister, governor and public service commission. Referring to Imran Khan and Sheikh Rashid, Qahar asked why those who have been cursing the parliament are now sitting in it.

Representing JUI-F, Jamaluddin called today a "black day" as the parliament was about to remove the word Fata from the country's Constitution. He alleged that Fata was being merged with KP as part of a foreign agenda.

Jamaluddin noted that both PML-N and PTI "curse each other" all the time, but today they have joined hands to "usurp the rights of the people of Fata".

Shah Gee Gul Afridi, an independent MNA from Fata, alleged that Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Mehmood Khan Achakzai were opposing the merger as they knew that "they would not get any funds after the bill is passed".

He said that the "real faces of those who wanted to keep the people of Fata divided for their political advantages had been exposed in parliament today".

He added that the nation would reject the opponents of the merger in the upcoming elections.

Before the bill was tabled, PTI's Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that JUI-F's Fazlur Rehman and PkMAP's Mehmood Khan Achakzai had wasted nearly two years opposing the merger "only for their vested interests".

Qureshi termed today a historical day and said that the merger of Fata with KP would be "the completion of Pakistan".

Though political parties have had differences on the matter, the armed forces on multiple occasions in the past have expressed support for the merger of Fata with KP.

In a meeting with a group of tribal elders of the region in March, Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa had assured that he favours the merger of Fata with KP but that a final decision would be made with the consent of all stakeholders.

Last month, Bajwa during a Corps Commanders' Conference had stressed that the "key dividend remains linked to mainstreaming of Fata in line with popular public sentiments".

KP-Fata merger

The bill seeks an amendment to Article 1 of the Constitution, which defines the country’s territory and mentions Fata as a separate entity along with other four provinces.

The bill also amends Articles 51 and 59, which specify the number of seats allocated to each of the federating units in the national and provincial assemblies.

Once the bill is passed, the strength of the Senate will reduce from 104 to 96 members as Fata will no longer have separate representation. Likewise, the number of seats in the National Assembly will be cut to 336 from 342.

Meanwhile, the KP assembly will have 145 seats, including 115 general, 26 reserved for women and four for minorities. Fata will have 21 seats in the KP Assembly, including 16 general, four for women and one reserved for non-Muslims "provided that elections to the aforesaid seats shall be held within one year after the general elections 2018", according to the bill.

Articles 106 and 155 have also been amended.

Sources had earlier said that the bill would also seek to repeal Articles 246 and 247, which place the tribal areas under the command and control of the president. According to the bill, Article 246 has been modified to reflect the merger of tribal areas with their respective provinces while 247 has been repealed.

Sources had earlier stated that most parties have agreed that the formal merger of Fata with KP should be spread over a year with the allocation of seats in the KP Assembly.

As far as senators from Fata are concerned, they said, it had been decided that the incumbent eight senators would be allowed to complete their six-year terms.

Half of the senators would retire in 2021 and the remaining four in 2024, after which there would be no separate representation for Fata in the Senate.

It was initially unclear if the bill would be passed as members' recent attendance in the assembly has been spotty at best. Official records show that on average, 175 members have attended the last 10 sittings of the assembly. The maximum presence of 222 members on May 15 and 208 on May 18 was recorded when the house passed the federal budget.

According to the Constitution, an amendment bill can only be passed with a vote of 228 members, two-thirds of the 342-member National Assembly, and political experts had believed that ensuring this number would be a daunting task not only for the government, but also for the opposition parties.

Passing the bill in KP Assembly

Another daunting task for the political leadership is to get the bill passed with a two-thirds vote in the KP Assembly before the expiry of its term on May 28, three days before the National Assembly’s dissolution.

As per Article 239(4) of the Constitution, the president cannot assent a constitutional amendment bill which affects geographical boundaries of a province without approval by the assembly of that province.

Article 239(4) of the Constitution reads, “A bill to amend the Constitution which would have the effect of altering the limits of a province shall not be presented to the president for assent unless it has been passed by the provincial assembly of that province by the votes of not less than two-thirds of its total membership.”

If the bill does not get through the KP Assembly, then the fate of Fata merger will be in the hands of new representatives to be elected in the coming general elections. Even after its passage from the National Assembly and the Senate, the president will have to wait to give his assent till the installation of the new assembly.

The National Assembly had already passed a bill on January 12 extending the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Peshawar High Court to Fata, as a first major step towards mainstreaming the tribal region and its eventual merger with KP.

The bill was passed comfortably as the only opposition to it came from JUI-F lawmakers.