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Fata politics: the fear factor

April 11, 2013

—File Photo.

THE last time Noorul Haq Qadri went to his native constituency in Landi Kotal, in the Khyber tribal region, was  some three and a half months ago. He has filed his nomination papers to seek re-election from NA-45 in the coming elections, but is not sure whether he will be able to run an election campaign.

A leader of a moderate Sufi mystic party, Qadri has faced threats from militants and has moved his entire family to the safe environs of Islamabad and Lahore. “We couldn’t stay there, there were threats”, he says. “The security is not good. Leave aside candidates, even voters need courage to go out and cast their votes. We’re in something of a quandary; how to reach out to the voters?”

Landi Kotal, a bustling border town, is considered relatively secure in a tribal region that sits on the main highway linking Pakistan with Afghanistan. There have been sporadic acts of terrorism and attacks, but not at the scale witnessed elsewhere in the largely rugged tribal territories.

Move south of Landi Kotal into Bara and the situation is worse: the military and paramilitary forces have conducted several clean-up operations against the Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) and the area has been in a state of perpetual curfew for the past three years.

The Fata Disaster Management Authority puts the total number of displaced families at 86,000. The takeover of Tirah Valley by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), causing the exodus of another 40,000, people has not helped the election process either.

“Some of our voters have moved to Taxila, others have gone to Rawalpindi. Now, one would need a good tracking system to track down one’s voters and bring them to the polling stations,” says Imran Afridi, a candidate from NA-46. “How we’re going to contest elections under these circumstances is beyond me.”

A recent official presentation by the Fata Secretariat acknowledged that holding elections wouldn’t be possible in Bara, indicating that on a scale of one to 10, the possibility stood at just five.

In neighbouring Orakzai, a military operation is ongoing in the upper part of the mountainous region. There has been repatriation to the lower part, but some of the population is still reluctant to return home.

Move over to Kurram Agency and while the situation there is relatively stable, the two communities in Parachinar and Sadda have been torn apart by lack of trust stemming from sectarian violence and militant attacks. Candidates vying for the two constituencies in Kurram will largely be contesting from their sectarian platforms.

Neighbouring North Waziristan is volatile, and authority belongs largely to the militants. The political administration is confined to the four walls of its administrative compound while the military moves only after imposing curfew. Surprisingly, though, the Fata Secretariat felt that elections could be held there. Yet even the most optimistic amongst the civil bureaucracy privately agree that no worthwhile candidate can contest or win polls in North Waziristan without the blessings of the motley crowd of militant groups operating in the region.

South Waziristan offers somewhat different dynamics. Wana, the region’s headquarters, stands out as an area still largely under the control of militants but where candidates associated with parties on the militants’ hit list feel comfortable enough to openly announce their political allegiances.

The Awami National Party (ANP), which tops the TTP’s hit list, is a serious contender in Wana’s NA-41 where the Maulvi Nazir group has apparently no issues with it or other political parties. This seems odd even if compared with the hitherto politically more active Khyber tribal region, where candidates who have political parties’ nominations have nonetheless opted to contest as independents.

NA-42, South Waziristan, is inhabited by the Mehsuds, a large population of which is displaced. The seat has been vacant since the 2008 elections; a military operation was launched in 2009 and there was the resultant displacement of residents. Several candidates have filed their nomination papers here, though it remains to be seen what arrangement the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the political administration make to enable displaced Mehsuds in the length and breadth of the country to cast their votes.

The heads of the ANP and the PPP’s Khyber chapters are feigning independence in the face of threats from LI chief Mangal Bagh; late last month, he said that his group would not allow anyone to take part in the elections due to the government’s lack of response to its peace overtures.

Those who know Mangal Bagh take his threats seriously, though officials of the political administration claim that the threat was made to make money, with the allegation that some candidates were willing to cough up some Rs10 million to be allowed to contest the polls. The militant leader issued his own code of conduct for candidates in the 2008 elections and it was followed in letter and spirit.

North Waziristan, the epicentre of militancy in Pakistan, presents a different look altogether. Fata’s internal assessment scorecard admits that the presence of the administration is restricted to their forts. In most of the indicators in terms of security, kidnappings, target-killings, bombings and militants’ influence the tribal region has scored negatively. But even then, the estimate suggests high chances for elections in the volatile region — though it is a foregone conclusion that a militant-backed candidate stands a better of chance of winning among the 48 contestants.

This is in the face of TTP’s threat to target the ANP, PPP and MQM. If some candidates took the threat lightly, the bombing at one of the ANP’s candidate’s public meeting in Bannu sent out a chilling warning.

Amidst the prevailing pre-poll fear in Fata, the Mohmand and Bajaur agencies may see relatively smooth sailing. The security situation in the two tribal regions is much better and largely under control.

Security officials warn that the advent of the summer could make it convenient for local militants, cooling their heels in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar and Nuristan provinces, to launch attacks not just in the two tribal agencies but also make an attempt to cause disruptions in Dir and Swat.

Under pressure from the superior courts, the ECP and the political administration in Fata may manage the extremely difficult feat of holding elections in a volatile region.

But in the absence of a level-playing field and in an environment of fear and huge displacement, can the polls be called free and fair?