FATA gets short-shrift in push for local elections

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: Photo By News Lens Pakistan / Matiullah Achakzai
Photo By News Lens Pakistan / Matiullah Achakzai

FATA:  As May 30 – the day local government elections are held in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, approaches – people in the federally administered tribal areas that borders the province and identifies with it due to common ethnicity are asking: Why no local elections in FATA?

In February this year, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced the schedule for local government elections in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. During a meeting of the ECP, headed by the Chief Election Commissioner Ex-Justice Sardar Raza, it was decided that local government elections would take place in Sindh province in March 2016 whereas local elections in Khyber Pakhunkhwa (KP) and Punjab were scheduled for May 2015 and November 2015 respectively. The tribal areas, or FATA, with a population of more than 10 million were not mentioned in the schedule.

In 2002, when the former military president Pervaiz Musharraf held local government elections in the country, they were also conducted in FATA but in a manner different from the rest of Pakistan.

Without any explanation on part of Musharraf government, it was decided in the local bodies’ polls of 2002 that 30% of the total local representatives in FATA would be nominated (not elected by popular vote) by the local political administration. Perhaps not surprisingly, these handpicked local representatives were mostly maliks and tribal elders considered loyal to the political administration.

When the local bodies were set up amongst heated debate on discrimination against the tribesmen and the basic human right to representation, the all powerful and influential maliks were made heads of various working committees and groups.

“The real aim of forming the local bodies proved futile within a short span pf time because the representatives were made subordinate and accountable to political administration instead of people,” one of the local representatives “nominated” by the political administration in North Waziristan told News Lens on condition of anonymity.

Another local representative, Malik Khan Marjan Wazir who is president of Tehrik Itehad e Qabail (Movement for the Union of Tribes), was made head of a committee set up for education in the local bodies of 2002. He denies the allegations saying that maliks were not the cause of failure of the local bodies in the tribal areas. He said the political bureaucracy was the main hurdle in the smooth working of local bodies.

“We would put recommendations before the political agent who would discard them saying we were not entitled to make suggestions on local governance and development,” said Wazir, adding that all his protests against the attitude of the political administration went unheeded.

He said that before setting up local bodies in FATA, it would be better to establish peace there and let the people go back to their homes.

“We demand of the government to review its policy towards FATA and we must be given an opportunity to prepare a (local bodies) law for ourselves,” said Wazir. “Our representatives in the parliament are deaf and dumb; they are not allowed to take part in any kind of legislation. It is the need of the day that the people of FATA should have a body of elected members no less than 60, who will decide about the future of their area.”

However, Safdar Hayat Dawar, ex councilor of North Waziristan, says local bodies’ polls are easier to hold in mainland Pakistan as compared to the tribal areas. He said scores of tribesmen had migrated to settled districts where the government could arrange local bodies’ polls for them.

“When they go back home, they must have elected bodies to start working on their needs as soon as they return,” Dawar told News Lens.

Even though the issue of law and order is a main hurdle in peace and governance in the tribal areas, the tribesmen also demand reforms in the system under which FATA is governed.

Malik Khan Marjan Wazir sounds confused when he says the government could have brought reforms within the first few years Pakistan came into existence but at the same time hints that tribesmen are safe under the discriminatory Frontier Crimes Regulation, a parallel “black law” bequeathed by the British rulers that takes away basic human rights from them.

“My house, my women and my self-respect have been safe under FCR for so many years,” says Wazir. “Why do the rulers tinker with the system without having a good substitute to replace the law?”

Safdar Hayat Dawar, however, is clear regarding the local bodies’ polls and the process of reforms in FATA.

He asks: “If the government sends back the displaced people to their homes, what would be the new mechanism under which they would be ruled  in the back drop of the massive military offensive against terrorists in FATA?”

“Do we want them them back to being ruled under the old political administration or will they once again live under the clutches of Taliban militants?” said Dawar, adding that the elected bodies are the only solution to the problems of the people of FATA.

As for the legal side of the local bodies’ in FATA, lawyers point out that the tribal areas are not under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and therefore the laws that extend to mainland Pakistan do not apply to the tribal hinterland.

“If you want to bring them under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, you have to bring about constitutional amendments ,” said Taj Mahal Afridi, a senior lawyer from Khyber Agency in FATA.

Afridi said  all powers related to the tribal areas were vested in a single person –  the president of Pakistan.

He said it was the “sweet will” of the president to issue an ordinance and direct the authorities to conduct local bodies’ polls in the tribal areas. Afridi said it was not difficult for the government to arrange elections FATA ‘s tribesmen in the settled areas of Peshawar, Bannu and elsewhere where they lived as displaced persons.

“In the General Elections of 2013, the government set up polling stations at Azakhel for the voters of Khyber Agency,” said Afridi. “What’s keeping it from doing the same for local government polls.”

Tribal elders say the people of FATA may have suffered from terrorism, but it has only reinforced their desire to live and be ruled under an nondiscriminatory regime. Their demand for  reforms has assumed greater immediacy in the wake of Talibanization of the tribal areas as has their appeal to basic human rights allowing them equal citizenship by getting rid of the outdated FCR that they call a Black Law.

“The world has changed a lot but the Pakistani rulers have kept us under a cruel law which is not  acceptable to the people of FATA nor the international community that wants to see us mainstreamed rather than existing as a lawless people deprived of basic human rights,” said Dawar.

Jamaat Islami central leader and former parliamentarian, Haroon-ur-Rashid, told News Lens in Khyber Agency that if FCR was a good and human friendly law then why was it not applied in the rest of Pakistan.

The JI leader said FATA parliamentarians should struggle to bring necessary changes in the current system. He said until the tribesmen were not given constitutional rights, they would remain second class citizens of Pakistan.

Advocate Qubais Khan Shinwari, a member of FATA Lawyers Forum at Peshawar High Court, told News Lens the lawyers forum and political parties would soon start a campaign to create awareness about the positive implications of local bodies’ polls in the tribal region.

He said it would be a step towards strong democracy if people at the grassroots level were given the power to decide about how they want to be governed.

“Fata is also a part of Pakistan,we are also human,” said Shinwari. “We should be facilitated to overcome from the decades of ignorance and poverty. Local bodies elections  in FATA would empower the tribesmen who are unaware of his rights and duties.”

Shinwari said if local elections were not possible, the next best thing would be to have an independent and empowered Legislative Council for FATA which would help mainstream the tribal region.

“It would be a great injustice to the eight million people of FATA if the government did not establish local bodies in FATA like the rest of the country,”said Shinwari.

Regarding the participation of women in local elections, Shinwari said that the government should conduct referendum how the tribal people would want to settle this issue.

Tribal elders in Khyber Agency said that without mainstreaming FATA into Pakistani politics, the region and its people will remain vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of state and anti-state elements.

Muhib Afridi, an activist, said that the Pakistan Muslim League government in Islamabad was keen to fill vacant seats in National Assembly through by-elections but indifferent to the rights of the people of FATA. He parliamentarians in the assemblies should keep their word and force the government to conduct local elections in FATA.

Shah Hussain, a leader of the Awami National Party( ANP) in FATA,  told News Lens that the government needed no big plans for local polls in FATA. He said peace had been restored in FATA where everybody wanted to elect their local leaders.

“If the honorable president of the Pakistan can promulgate an overnight ordinance regarding FATA senate elections, it can also issue another ordinance allowing the tribal people to elect their representatives as per their aspirations,” said Hussain.

(Additional reporting by Ashraafud Din Pirzada in Khyber Agency)

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