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In Pakistan’s Pashtun Tribal Belt, First Election Marred By Complaints

FILE: Voters queued to cast votes in Pakistani general in North Waziristan tribal district on July 25, 2018.
FILE: Voters queued to cast votes in Pakistani general in North Waziristan tribal district on July 25, 2018.

KHYBER/DERA ISMAIL KHAN/BANNU, Pakistan -- The first-ever election for representing Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has generated considerable interest and raised hopes.

But days ahead of the crucial polls on July 20, candidates from the region are complaining of an uneven election field, restrictions, and fears of rigging.

Some are now asking whether the election intends to empower the region’s more than 6 million Pashtun residents or simply bolster the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) political party.

Jamal Malyar was hoping to run a massive election campaign to convince members of his fellow Mehsud Pashtun tribe to vote him into the provincial parliament. But his campaign couldn’t take off because he spent most of June restricted to his house in South Waziristan, one of the seven tribal districts that formed FATA.

“The administration gave me no reason for imposing this sort of house arrest,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Like many young men in South Waziristan and other parts of former FATA, Malyar supported the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). The civil rights movement demands security and rights for Pakistan’s estimated 35 million Pashtun minority while also calling for accountability for Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism that killed tens of thousands of Pashtun civilians and forced millions more to abandon their homes since 2003. Most of the Pashtun victims were FATA residents, and the PTM also emerged from this region.

“It is an injustice because while I did support the PTM I am not contesting this election on its behalf,” Malyar said, alluding to the PTM’s status as a nonparliamentary voluntary movement.

Islamabad launched a widespread crackdown on the PTM after a military spokesman accused it of working on behalf of the Indian and Afghan intelligence services in late April. Authorities rounded up its top leaders after more than a dozen PTM supporters were killed by military fire near a check post in North Waziristan in late May.

Malyar says the authorities now seem determined to keep anyone linked with the PTM away from the election. “We are Pakistani citizens, and we have democratic and constitutional rights to participate in this election,” he noted. “But what kind of election is this where some candidates are treated as favorites while others are treated as stepchildren?”

It was not possible to immediately contact Yousaf Ali Mohmand, an assistant commissioner or civil servant responsible for the part of South Waziristan where Malyar is running in the election.

In June, Asif Khan Khattak, head of the Pakistan Election Commission in South Waziristan, however, told Radio Mashaal that he is trying to convince the authorities to level the playing field.

“We are telling the authorities to provide equal opportunities to all candidates,” he said. “It is not OK to treat some candidates as favorites while pressuring others.”

In neighboring North Waziristan, many candidates united to demand several steps to ensure that the July 20 elections are free and fair.

“The army is being deployed at polling stations [for security], but they need to be kept away from the polling process,” Jamal Dawar, a candidate in North Waziristan, told Radio Mashaal on July 7.

Dawar called on the authorities to immediately lift Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Pakistani authorities often invoke this law to ban large gatherings.

“The authorities need to make sure that all materials needed for election monitoring, such as close-circuit TV cameras, are functioning,” he said. “The polling agents should be included in all counting and tallying of votes.”

Last year, the Pakistani Parliament merged FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the election is considered an important step in bringing the region into the country’s economic and political mainstream after it suffered under British colonial laws for more than a century.

But many independent candidates and those running on the tickets of close to a dozen opposition parties in former FATA allege that the ruling PTI is using government resources and development funds to sweep the election on all 16 seats in former FATA.

They allege that the PTI wants to show that a year after the general election its popularity is still intact despite the feverish political atmosphere in the country, where the opposition has united to challenge the PTI and even criticized the powerful military for favoring it. Opposition political parties are planning a major protest on July 25 amid an economic downturn characterized by inflation and a hike in utility prices.

“We reject the election commission’s recommendation of deploying army soldiers inside the polling stations during the upcoming elections in the erstwhile FATA,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a prominent Islamist and leading opposition figure, recently told journalists.

The military, however, denies meddling in politics or supporting a political party. The PTI also denies being supported by the military. Its administrations in Islamabad and Peshawar claim they are pouring unprecedented funds into former FATA to bring it on par with the rest of Pakistan.

"One of our biggest problems is that the richer has gotten richer and poor has had no impact. Some areas have grown while other have been flung back,” PTI leader and Prime Minister Imran Khan recently told lawmakers. “This is lopsided development. Balochistan is one of those areas, and the other is [erstwhile] FATA."

But in former FATA, PTI leaders are more vocal about their intentions. Malik Shah Muhammad Khan, a PTI lawmaker representing the southern district of Bannu in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, warned voters last week that they should only vote for PTI candidates so their regions can get government funds.

“If the masses elect the opposition candidates, they will get no funds for development projects,” he was quoted as saying by the Urdu daily Mashriq.

Shah Hussain Shinwari, a candidate for the secular Awami National Party (ANP), says that part of his constituency in the historic Khyber Pass is a no-go area because of security concerns. “The region of Bazaar Zakhakhel is off-limits for many candidates. The government needs to grant us access to the region,” he told Radio Mashaal.

But Muhammad Nadeem Khan, an official overseeing the election in Khyber district, says they are committed to turning the election into a level playing field for all candidates.

“July 20 is a historic day for residents of former FATA, and we would like to ensure that all eligible men and women voters can participate in the election,” he told Radio Mashaal.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story with reporting by Radio Mashaal correspondents Sailab Mehsud, Umar Daraz Wazir, Farhad Shinwari, and Israr Alam Mohmand.