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Elections in Fata By Khadim Hussain

THE Joint Committee on Fata Reforms represented by 10 major political parties submitted its recommendations to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for holding fair and free elections in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) some time ago.

The committee in its recommendations has suggested steps to be taken by the ECP for successfully holding elections in Fata. This is a significant move and can pave the way for the political mainstreaming and de-radicalisation of the tribal agencies if the federal government, the military establishment and the ECP take the necessary measures for holding fair and free elections in these areas.

The extension of the 2002 Political Parties Act to Fata in August 2011 was a move aimed at bringing Fata into Pakistan’s political mainstream. Such mainstreaming, accompanied by efforts at administrative and economic integration is meant to be a harbinger of a genuine political process in Fata to give the people there an opportunity to participate in the policymaking process of the country.

Such participation might bring about an end to the marginalisation that has been Fata’s lot for the past several decades. It might also neutralise the militant discourse that has permeated the local communities, and at the same time be considered the first essential step towards making the residents of Fata stakeholders in the country’s future. But there are challenges ahead.

First, the militant network has spread to almost every agency of Fata especially South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai and Khyber. Most of these agencies have been witnessing the strangulating social control of the militant network over the past two decades. One can assume that some modicum of normalcy has been restored to the Bajaur, Mohmand and Malakand agencies and some parts of South Waziristan after intermittent military operations from 2009 to 2012.

The social control of the militant network in various shades poses a threat to the political process in Fata in general but specifically to all liberal democratic parties. This might severely endanger the process of genuine representative electioneering in Fata.

Second, the civilian administration in almost all agencies of Fata has not yet been allowed to start functioning routinely. The registration of voters, allotment of polling booths and administration of electioneering through returning officers might face serious hurdles in the absence of the writ of the high courts and Supreme Court in Fata. Right from election campaigning to the counting of votes, questions may arise pertaining to transparency, especially in the case of female voters. Besides, the issue of the hundreds and thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) still lingers.

Third, political parties might not be able to openly conduct their election campaigns in the presence of military checkposts and the stranglehold of the militant network. Ticket-holders of political parties might face severe resistance from militant networks.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the majority of the people in Fata including the IDPs are inclined to support party-based elections in the area as emerged from interviews conducted with people belonging to different parts of the tribal areas. This gives hope to those who are for reforms, mainstreaming and de-radicalisation in Fata.

Certain measures can be suggested to create an enabling environment for holding free and fair elections in the tribal region.

First, as has been suggested by the Fata committee, the ECP needs to make urgent arrangements for the registration of voters. The ECP also needs to develop a mechanism for the deployment of returning officers from the adjoining districts. No progress in this regard has been made so far. The process of the allotment of polling booths that are accessible to voters and booths for the IDPs needs to be planned on an urgent basis due to the fact that in most agencies of Fata, the population is widely scattered.

Second, the federal government may develop a mechanism for coordination between the political administration and the military in Fata to ensure the security of both contestants and voters. Specifically, the intelligence wings of the security forces have to make sure that no candidate is abducted, attacked or intimidated by the terror network in Fata before and during the elections. All supply lines of the militant network need to be cut off for the security of both voters and candidates.

Third, all those political parties that wish to participate in the elections in Fata must form an alliance to agree on the fundamental principles of the rules of game. The alliance may not be necessarily for the purpose of contesting elections together but for creating an enabling environment for polls.

Due to the sensitive security and sociopolitical circumstances of Fata, political cooperation is of utmost importance. Besides agreement on the code of conduct developed by the ECP, political parties contesting elections in Fata must agree to safeguard one another against imminent dangers and mobilise voters. They should also facilitate one another in holding corner meetings.

Political parties must carry out consultations on an urgent basis to form a strategy for engagement with at least some militant groups with the help of the federal government, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the military establishment. This move could slow down militancy during the election season.

Civil society organisations, including unions of journalists, working in Fata must form consortiums to facilitate the registration of voters, help returning officers conduct electioneering and develop tools for monitoring the elections. Civil society organisations might also form cells to update the government and political parties on important issues and events in Fata. They might also help in developing an enabling environment for dialogue between political administrations and militant groups.

Last but not least the holding of local- bodies polls in Fata immediately after elections is important so that the political process becomes the norm at the grassroots level. The time to act is now.

The writer is a political analyst.

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