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DERA ISMAIL KHAN: As spring transforms the fertile plains of this gateway to Fata and election fever begins to pick up, the districts of D.I. Khan and Tank and the tribal area of South Waziristan are also caught in a vortex of fear and uncertainty.

While the threat of militant violence in the upcoming campaign season hangs over all of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and many other parts of the country, elections in few other areas promise to be as complicated as here, where the southern tip of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa meets the tribal areas.

“Anywhere in Pakistan is a target but everyone knows the particular dangers and targets in these parts,” said Naveed Sultan, a journalist based in D.I. Khan. D.I. Khan and Tank, an entry point to South Waziristan, have been hammered by militant and sectarian violence in recent years and both are also home to high-profile politicians: Maulana Fazlur Rehman is expected to contest both NA-24 (D.I. Khan) and NA-25 (D.I. Khan-cum-Tank), while former deputy speaker of the National Assembly Faisal Karim Kundi of the PPP will stand from NA-24.

Meanwhile, NA-42, one of South Waziristan’s two seats, has the distinction of being the only National Assembly constituency in which no election has been held in more than a decade. The 2002 election was won by Maulana Merajuddin, who later joined the JUI-F and was assassinated in Tank in 2009.

The Feb 2008 election in NA-42 was postponed because of the security situation in the area and then, before the start of Operation Rah-e-Nijat in October 2009, this Mehsud-dominated constituency was emptied of its population.

A ghost constituency In NA-42, the problem is less of violence during the campaign than the swathes of the constituency that are still uninhabited.

From Jandola, the principal entry point to South Waziristan, through Kotkai, the hometown of Hakeemullah Mehsud and Qari Husain, to the hills of Sararogha, some IDPs have returned, with many more having returned to their homes in Chagmalai to the west of Jandola.

But, as Lt Col Hassan Hayat explained during a tour of his area in Sararogha, of the 42,000 families that left South Waziristan in 2009, according to army figures, only 11,000 have been allowed to return. The majority of the population that left SWA was from NA-42, dominated by the Mehsud tribe, and not NA-41, which centres around Wana, the stronghold of the Wazirs.

Arrangements for voting in South Waziristan have yet to be officially announced, but it is believed that polling will be conducted in the resettled areas of NA-42, while the rest of the constituency’s population will have to travel to the agency’s headquarters in Tank to cast their vote.

Samiullah Jan, a candidate from NA-42 on the Jamaat-i-Islami ticket, is critical of the Tank-only voting option for IDPs: “The principal destinations of the families were D.I. Khan and Tank and then Karachi and Miramshah. They (the election commission) should make arrangements for voting in the other areas too, just like they do for Kashmir elections. The distances are too long and many of the people are too poor to travel to Tank just to cast their vote.”

Jan also criticised the under-registration of voters in the latest electoral lists: “In 2008, there were some 210,000 voters in South Waziristan. The new list actually has a few thousand fewer voters. The population is so scattered and the process of getting a CNIC for tribesmen is so cumbersome that many have lost their right to vote.”

Abdur Rahim Burki, another candidate in NA-42, highlighted a different problem: campaigning among a scattered population is near impossible. “Many of the Mehsud IDPs ended up staying with relatives wherever their homes are. So first I have to scour all of D.I. Khan and Tank just to find my constituents. It’s not like they’re clustered together in one area,” Burki said.

A scattered population and long distances to Tank for IDPs to cast their vote means that a record low turnout is expected in NA-42. “In 2002, Merajuddin won with 12,000 votes. This time, the winner will probably need no more than five or six thousand,” Burki said of his constituency, which has approximately 130,000 voters.

A tense calm With 600,000 voters in D.I. Khan and another 150,000 in Tank, the electorate is healthy enough in terms of numbers. But the possibility of violence during the campaign season and on polling day has already cast a pall over election preparations in the two districts.

“You have your sarkari (state) Taliban here, you have your seraiki (Punjabi) Taliban here, you have Fata and all its problems at your doorstep. Things have been calm in recent times, but that could change in a moment,” said Naveed Sultan, the D.I. Khan-based journalist.

With the TTP having suspended its offer of talks with the government, the foremost threat is of violence by the Taliban. A South Waziristan native living in D.I. Khan explained the particular nature of the threat in D.I. Khan and Tank:

“These districts have a large number of Mehsud IDPs and residents. When Baitullah (Mehsud, leader of the TTP) was alive, he saw the damage being inflicted on the Mehsuds living here by bomb blasts and attacks and halted them. But the militants among the Mehsuds are still here and can be activated at any moment.”

Sectarian terrorism is another scourge of the area, with the local Shia population frequently targeted by militant groups. Consecutive bombings on the 9th and 10th of Muharram last November underscored the sectarian threat, while the bombing of Shia Hazara neighbourhoods in Quetta saw significant protests by D.I. Khan’s Shia population earlier this year.

“Everyone knows where the (militant training) camps are in this area and who is involved in what,” said Naveed Sultan. “When the state wants to clean up, it does. A few years ago, the station commander in D.I. Khan, Brig Hamid Tayyab, was sent here to clean up. He went after the groups and the city was secured fairly quickly.”

So, for the major political parties, the campaign here will be a heavily choreographed affair. The JUI-F, a target of some militant groups and often accused of having clandestine relations with others, is treading carefully in its stronghold.

“The biggest problem for maulana (Fazlur Rehman) during the campaign is security,” said Mushtaq Ahmed Dar, a JUI-F leader in the city. “None of us can think of big rallies out in the open. Everything has to be done in enclosed spaces where people can be frisked and security managed.”

Mohammad Hanif Khan, a local PPP leader, was also candid about his party leadership’s fears in the district: “We know what the Taliban have said (about targeting the PPP). There can always be a bomb blast. Many people, and even some candidates, stay away for that reason.”

Much as there is fear and uncertainty, there is also determination. Dar, the local JUI-F leader, attributed his party’s surging prospects in D.I. Khan and Tank to, among other factors, the energy of party workers. “We’re working tirelessly, going around day and night, meeting people, canvassing for support,” Dar said. “This is what we live for.”

And, serious as the threats are, there is also some humour left in D.I. Khan. Amanul Haq Ghaznikhel, a PPP candidate for a provincial seat, smiled when asked about security fears. “SMS is a great invention. If Sheikh Rasheed can run his mega campaigns (in Rawalpindi) through SMS, why can’t we?” Haq responded.