The recent election in Pakistan’s former tribal districts was an opportunity for millions to vote their representatives into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly for the first time in the country’s history. The 20 July election was a key marker in the ongoing merger of Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to bring the region into Pakistan’s constitutional and administrative mainstream.
But with reports of massive rigging, this historic election turned out to be a lost opportunity for not only Pakistan but also for the international community. Widely regarded as a terror-infested territory bordering Afghanistan, a clean election in FATA could have potentially overturned the dirty strategic games being played there for long, and also provided a critical window in case Doha peace talks come undone.
FATA’s troubled past
Until May last year, the erstwhile FATA was ruled directly by the President of Pakistan under a set of colonial-era laws, including the draconian and discriminatory Frontier Crimes Regulation, which runs contrary to all provisions of fundamental rights and due process in the Constitution of Pakistan.
FATA was infested with several militant groups like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Haqqani network. It also served as the base and launch pad for the ‘mujahideen’ of the 1980s fighting then USSR-backed Babrak Karmal regime in Afghanistan, and later the USSR itself. Pakistani police or the courts of law had no jurisdiction in this land, which was governed through tribal Maliks and government-appointed political agents. Hence, the seven districts in FATA region have remained severely underdeveloped, with some of the poorest socio-economic indicators to show in the country. The region has also been an information black hole, primarily serving as a place from where strategic policies with regards to Afghanistan were devised.
Until 1997, voting rights in FATA were not uniform, with only a few thousand tribals allowed to vote or contest elections as ‘Independents’. It was only in August 2009 that then-President Asif Ali Zardari announced the lifting of the ban on political activities in FATA, supposedly keeping his wife and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s wish. Zardari, however, couldn’t implement it because of the military’s resistance.
FATA remained the place from where the entire infrastructure of ‘jihad’ – the militant-producing madrassas like the Haqqania – continued to thrive.
Robbed by a rigged election
Political parties were finally allowed into FATA in 2011 – two years after Zardari’s announcement.
Therefore, the 2019 election, being the first under a constitutional decree and thus a redressal mechanism, should have served as a watershed to ‘open up’ FATA. It should have become the moment that gave its people genuine representation in the local assembly to have their grievances heard by mainstream Pakistan. But this process was subverted with heavy rigging to bring in Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and some ‘Independent’ puppets while keeping out popular candidates belonging to the Awami National Party (ANP), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
Barring PTI candidates, all were harassed with arrests, FIRs, threats or simply prevented from campaigning through the imposition of curfews. The environment in the run-up to the election was made so harsh and frightening that not a single party president or chairman could visit and campaign for their candidates.
PTI candidates, on the other hand, campaigned under military protection or under the aegis of armed good Taliban. None of this is recorded in the mainstream press or media. Journalists like Adnan Bitani and Ihsan Tipu Mehsud (who covers Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for The New York Times) and several activists from Waziristan have, however, recorded these violations and manipulation of the election in the form of videos, narrating arrests, attacks, harassment, and election-day rigging on social media.
The PTI Candidate Naseer Wazir staging firing of his victory by Good Taliban with heavy weaponary in WANA Wazirstan. They have violated all the rules & laws of ECP. How will National & KP Govt respond to this. Injustice in Justice Party Rule. pic.twitter.com/vuhII41Hzx
— Ihtesham Afghan (@IhteshamAfghan) July 24, 2019
Protests by supporters of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement ahead of the election revealed a curious and worrying development – that of an attempt to re-Talibanise the tribal region as a launch-pad for attacks in Afghanistan and as a counter-force to the PTM itself, which demands peace in the area and resists the Taliban. Until the end-game in Afghanistan, that is the successful installation of the Taliban in Kabul as part of a coalition government through the US-Taliban ‘peace negotiations’ – the security establishment does not want to open up the FATA.
Keeping the Taliban’s base intact
An isolated, unrepresented black hole FATA, in particular in North and South Waziristan, would then continue to serve as the Taliban’s base for a new wave of attacks on neighbouring Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, etc should the Doha talks fail for any reason. The Haqqani network is stationed in these two former agencies of FATA. So, if the Taliban are not catapulted into Kabul, they will at least rule the provinces to continue their march towards the capital.
Towards this aim, ingenuous election rigging plans were conceived and executed. For example, the population census of FATA of 2017 wiped out half the population of the region, which politicians and activists of the area have estimated to be at least 10 million based on the government’s own numbers of refugees leaving from or returning to the tribal areas after various operations. This effectively robbed the region of its due number of seats in the national and provincial legislatures during the delimitation exercise ahead of the merger.
Mohsin Dawar, the massively popular PTM activist and member of the national assembly from North Waziristan, managed to table and get the 26th constitutional amendment bill passed unanimously. The bill had sought to increase the erstwhile FATA’s seat share from 6 to 12 in the national assembly and from 16 to 24 in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly. But he was thwarted by Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani’s efforts to repeatedly withdraw the bill from the agenda. The bill ultimately became redundant because the Senate never got a chance to act on it. Had the bill passed into an Act, Mohsin and PTM’s popularity would have further soared, leading to a clean sweep by the PTM in the provincial election.
One of the biggest attacks on the fairness of the recent election was the May 26 Khar Qamar incident, when MNAs Ali Wazir, Mohsin Dawar and activists of the PTM came under military fire. Thirteen people, including two children, were killed (the military says three); Wazir and Dawar were ‘arrested’ and prevented from campaigning for their candidates in FATA. They remain in prison to this day.
What happened in the FATA election, therefore, has domestic as well as international implications. Domestically, a transparent and genuine election would eventually have led to the presence of the Taliban, their bases, and the military’s illegal internment centres in the erstwhile FATA to be exposed. From the transnational perspective, it was important to keep options open in case of a collapse of the Doha talks.
The author is a Pakistani columnist and human rights defender. Views are personal.