• Ex-Fata areas down from 12 to six seats following fresh delimitation
• Security concerns continue to haunt districts bordering Afghanistan
• Analysts say most promises made with residents of merged districts ‘haven’t materialised’
PAKISTAN’S ‘wild west’, the tribal region that straddles the Afghan border, has come a long way since 1996, when the area was first granted the status of adult franchise on the basis of ‘one-man-one-vote’.
Until then, the state used to exercise its authority through the chosen few — a couple of thousand hand-picked maliks or influentials in each of the seven tribal agencies and Frontier Regions, who would literally sell their votes to send their representative to the lower house of parliament.
This recognition of the rights of the tribespeople didn’t come easily. It took decades of struggle by the educated and politically aware citizens of these parts to wrest their political destiny from entrenched vested interests. It was then that that veteran Pashtun nationalist and senior lawyer, Latif Afridi, won his first seat from the Khyber tribal region in the polls immediately after it got its right to vote.
Erstwhile Fata (the acronym by which the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been known since the country’s inception) inched further closer to political mainstreaming with its merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when it sent its representatives to the provincial assembly a year after the 2018 elections.
February 8, then, will mark a new chapter in the region’s history when over three million voters would cast their ballots to elect their national and provincial representatives on the same day as the rest of the country.
Bedeviled by militancy and a series of military operations and rising terrorist attacks, the merged districts — as these tribal regions are now called — will see voters making their own political choices from amongst parties that had earlier been barred from operating in the areas, or organising into local chapters.
Campaigning here still isn’t easy, though. Prominent political leaders are under direct threat and so far, no political leader of national stature has held a public rally in any of the tribal districts. The militant Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has distributed pamphlets in Bajaur, directly threatening the JUI-F.
The banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claims it wouldn’t target elections, even though it deems them against Sharia. One of its groups, meanwhile, has publicly differed with the umbrella organisation and vowed to sabotage the polling process.
Electioneering may be subdued here, but political parties’ candidates are running their campaigns nonetheless — a big deal for a region that had, in the past, been exclusively electing independents.
There is also a drastic shift in the electoral landscape of the erstwhile Fata region, with the number of total National Assembly constituencies being reduced from 12 to six. This means that the competition is intense, even by the standards of this so-called ‘wild west’.
Though the majority of candidates in ex-Fata districts were always connected to political parties in one way or the other, the electoral contests would always boil down to ‘individual races’. After then-president Asif Ali Zardari signed the ‘Extension of the Political Parties Order 2002’ in the year 2011, political parties formally entered the electoral arena for the first time.
In the 2013 elections, 66 per cent of seats in the 12 NA constituencies were bagged by independent nominees. The PML-N got two seats, followed by the PTI and the JUI-F — both with one seat each. NA-38 (Kurram) did not go to polls at the time due to ongoing military operations against militants.
The 2018 polls, however, saw political parties coming of age in the region, and only two independent candidates — Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar — managed to clinch their respective seats in South and North Waziristan districts, respectively. The PTI emerged victorious on six seats and the PML-N and Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal got one seat each. This election established the dominance of political parties in the tribal belt.
The latest delimitation exercise in 2023 reduced the number of NA seats in the seven tribal and one FR district from 12 in 2018 to six — with one seat, NA-36, shared jointly by districts Hangu and Orakzai.
Shadow of merger
Elections in the ex-Fata region are overshadowed by the “fruitless” merger of the tribal region with the KP province, observes Ijaz Mohmand, a member of the Fata Lawyers Forum who was one of the voices that advocated for the merger.
“You cannot hold political activities since everyone knows everything has been decided,” he said, while commenting on the lackluster campaigning ahead of polls, marred by allegations of pre-poll rigging.
According to him, people of the area, particularly the youth, are disappointed as all the promises made to them before the merger had remained unfulfilled.
“The turnout would be lower as compared to the past elections,” he claims. Mr Mohmand predicted that the high number of educated youth in Bajaur and Parachinar (part of Kurram district) would result in a higher turnout there, but this enthusiasm would be missing in other parts of the tribal districts.
“Erstwhile Fata was promised its share, which is yet to be provided: the land revenue record, extension of court and dozens of other reforms are yet to be carried out, even after the passage of six years,” he said, adding that Rs100 billion, which was to be provided annually to the merged districts, is yet to be doled out.
He also raised concerns about the law and order situation in these districts, particularly Mohmand and Tirah valley in Khyber and Orakzai. “It is not possible to campaign in these areas,” he said, adding that most of the tribal districts shared a border with Afghanistan, which makes them vulnerable to security threats.
According to Mr Mohmand, the law and order situation specifically in Mohmand and Tirah never allowed candidates to campaign openly.
In Bajaur, PTI leader Guldad Khan emerged victorious in NA-40 — now renumbered to NA-8 — in the 2018 polls. Another constituency in the area, NA-44, has now been eliminated. Previously, this seat was won by PTI’s Gul Zafar Khan, who emerged victorious after defeating 12 other candidates. This time, Gul Zafar is an independent candidate, whereas PPP’s Syed Akhunzada Chattan, ANP’s Khan Zeb, and PML-N nominee Shahabuddin have thrown their hats in the ring. However, elections on this seat, alongwith two KP Assembly seats — PK-22 Bajaur and PK-91 Kohat — have been postponed by the ECP due to the death of candidates.
With one NA seat in district Mohmand, independent candidate Bilal Rehman won general elections twice in 2008 and 2013 as an independent. The constituency was changed from NA-36 in 2008 and 2013 to NA-42 in 2018 and PTI’s Sajid Khan won those polls by a close margin of 1,641 votes.
The constituency has now been renumbered from NA-42 to NA-26 and will witness a contest between PML-N’s Zar Khan, PPP’s Abdul Waheed Khan, JUI-F’s Muhammad Arif, ANP’s Nisar Ahmad and the PTI-backed independent Sajid Khan.
Khyber lost one NA seat to fresh delimitation. Previously, it had two constituencies — NA-45 and NA-46, which have been merged into one seat — NA-27. In 2018, PTI leader Noorul Haq Qadri retained the seat. This time, PML-N’s Shahji Gul Afridi, JUI-F’s Hameedullah Jan Afridi, PPP’s Shah Rehman and the independent Noorul Haq Qadri are among the contenders.
Also, the erstwhile seat for the Frontier Regions (FR) comprising FR Kohat, FR Peshawar, FR Tank, FR Bannu, FR Lakki and FR Dera Ismail Khan have been merged with their respective adjacent districts meaning that the FR regions have lost their sole seat, NA-47 in 2008 and 2013 and NA-51 in 2018 general elections.
In 2023, Kurram also lost one of its NA seats to fresh delimitation. In 2018, the tribal district went to the polls in NA-45 and NA-46, with the former won by the late Munir Orakzai and the latter clinched by PPP’s Sajid Hussain Turi.
This time, NA-37 is expected to witness a neck-and-neck race. Some of the candidates in this constituency include PPP leader Sajid Turi, JUI-F’s Asmatullah, and PML-N candidate Muhammadullah.
NA-40 (N. Waziristan)
In North Waziristan, the constituency earlier known as NA-48 in the 2018 elections, will witness a contest between National Democratic Movement chief Mohsin Javed Dawar, PML-N’s Nazir Khan, JUI-F nominee Misbahuddin and ANP leader Ashrafullah. Previously, Mr Dawar had emerged victorious on the seat.
NA-42 (S. Waziristan)
In South Waziristan, there were two constituencies in the 2018 polls — NA-50 was won by Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement-backed candidate Ali Wazir and NA-49 was bagged by MMA leader Muhammad Jamaluddin. These two have now been merged to form NA-42 for the upcoming general elections. Besides Ali Wazir, PPP leader Amanullah, ANP’s Hameedullah, and Ayesha Gulalai are vying for this constituency.
Much is at stake for the people of merged districts. Security is bad and promises of a turnaround to address their decades of grievances remain unfulfilled.
The unfortunate thing is that none of the mainstream political parties vying for power have made the issues haunting the merged districts part of their manifestos. The turnout perhaps would be one way of figuring out the political future of the once mostly-ungoverned borderland.
Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2024
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