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Polls in former Fata

April 22, 2019

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THE passage of the 25th Amendment last year finally set into motion the long overdue process of bringing the former tribal agencies into the constitutional fold. Soon, a newly enfranchised electorate will go to the polls to elect their representatives in the KP Assembly. These districts are now the staging ground for a historic election in which the political parties pitch their visions of reform and development to a hitherto conflict-riven and rights-deprived populace. Though the reforms process has been mired in delay, false starts and confusion, and is still in search of ownership and direction, it is now an unstoppable juggernaut. In the turf war between the status quo of entrenched interests and the uncertainty of new alliances, at stake is a referendum on what defines the future of erstwhile Fata.

Interestingly, both the incumbent PTI and opposition parties appear to be framing their position in relation to a newcomer on the political circuit. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement’s massive rally in North Waziristan a week ago is testament to the sustained impact of the movement in the Pakhtun (and even national) consciousness since it emerged last year — despite receiving little media coverage or mainstream political engagement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the timing, this convening was soon followed by an unprecedented meeting between their representatives and a special Senate committee, and a stated commitment to further dialogue. Then, in his speech in Orakzai on Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan endorsed the core tenets of the PTM’s agenda but repudiated the tenor in which they articulate their demands as counterproductive and backwards-looking. His prescription focused on boosting socioeconomic indicators in the districts with particular emphasis on health, education and employment.

Clearly, the movement’s ethnic nationalist narrative is deeply resonant for it to factor so prominently in other’s electioneering. Yet, despite displaying a consistent commitment to voicing their constitutional demands in a nonviolent manner, the inhibited public debate on the PTM has tragically obfuscated the indisputable reality they seek to redress — the devastation of the social fabric, and distortion of the social contract, in the tribal areas caused by decades of draconian governance, neglect, militancy and military operations. Pressure exerted by the mainstream political parties can help lift unofficial press embargos on coverage of the movement, and the persona non grata status of its activists. Courage and compassion must be shown to recalibrate the discourse. Yes, the people of this region desperately need development, but without an honest effort to reckon with the unintended fallout of military interventions, peace, stability and progress can never take hold. There is no looking forward unless the past is reconciled and faith restored. Freedom and justice are the mainstays of our constitutional democracy. In this maiden election, to these voting citizens, this electoral promise must be universal.

Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2019