DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan – The merger of Pakistan’s western Pashtun tribal regions into the adjoining province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year raised hopes that its long-suffering residents would gain more rights by joining the country’s political, economic, and administrative mainstream.
But a year later, politicians and activists from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are complaining of increasing repression in the run-up to the first-ever election for representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly.
The election is clouded by a wider crackdown on the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Last year, the civil rights movement emerged from FATA to demand rights and security for Pakistan’s estimated 35-million-strong Pashtun minority whose homeland, particularly FATA, became the main theater for Islamabad’s domestic war on terrorism. Tens of thousands of Pashtun civilians were killed, and millions displaced in over a decade of Taliban attacks and military operations.
“We cannot campaign freely. Our offices are being raided. Some of our comrades were arrested, while others fear arrest,” Taj Muhammad Wazir, a candidate in the provincial assembly polls, told Radio Mashaal. He says his Awami National Party (ANP) is facing a crackdown in the South Waziristan tribal district after it recently protested for two PTM lawmakers to be allowed to participate in the ongoing parliament session.
Taj says that soon after their protest on June 21, authorities imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Pakistani authorities often invoke this law to prevent protests and political gatherings. The law is also invoked in other parts of FATA, while parts of North Waziristan tribal district are under an intermittent curfew.
“If these conditions persist, how can we campaign?” Taj asked. “What kind of an election are we going to see?”
Independents and members of over a dozen political parties comprise hundreds of candidates contesting for 16 seats in the July 20 vote in former FATA. The region’s seven districts form an arch along the border with Afghanistan. Some of the candidates are not happy over the treatment they have received from the authorities in the run-up to election.
On June 22, police briefly detained Imran Mukhlis Wazir, a candidate of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in South Waziristan. He says he was arrested for raising his voice for peace in the region.
“Some political parties such as the ANP and the PPP are facing hurdles while others are being facilitated,” he said. “It seems that two [political] systems are being run here.”
Asif Khan Khattak, head of the Pakistan Election Commission in South Waziristan, however, says he is trying to convince the authorities to provide a level playing field.
“We are telling the authorities to provide equal opportunities to all candidates,” he told Radio Mashaal. “It is not OK to treat some candidates as favorites while pressuring others.”
In recent years, Islamabad has boasted about achieving peace in former FATA after the country’s military finally defeated the hard-line Taliban militants. In the current proposed budget, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa authorities have pledged more than $1 billion for the impoverished region. Officials say the funds are intended to bolster healthcare and education and provide jobs.
But politicians from the region say that official plans and claims amount to little as long as the region’s more than 6 million residents are deprived of basic human rights and the security forces, instead of the civilian administration, act as masters of justice in the region.
“We campaigned for merging FATA and implementing the Pakistani Constitution and laws here,” Nisar Wazir, an elderly leader of the ANP, told a protest in South Waziristan’s administrative center, Wana, on June 21. “We recognize that the army is tasked with protecting the country, but we have also inherited a resistance to injustice and oppression.”
The ANP protest called on the speaker of the National Assembly, or lower house of the parliament, to allow PTM lawmakers Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar to participate in the legislature’s budget session. They represent the North and South Waziristan districts in the parliament.
The two lawmakers were arrested last month after the military killed 13 protesters at a check post in North Waziristan, PTM members said. The military, however, say that it responded after the protesters opened fire first. Video clips of the incident show that the protesters were unarmed.
Since then, the PTM has been under a relentless crackdown. With dozens of its top leaders under arrest, its cadres now face unprecedented pressure from the authorities. The movement’s charismatic figurehead, Manzoor Pashteen, feels that Pakistan’s powerful military now wants to stop the PTM.
“If people truly believe that those who live in the tribal areas are human beings, that they are Muslims, whether they accept them to be Pakistanis or not, they have the right to not be killed extrajudicially,” he recently told Reuters.
On April 29, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the military’s spokesman, told journalists that “time is up” for the PTM because it was playing into the hands of Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies.
Since its emergence in February 2018, the PTM has campaigned for an end to illegal killings, forced disappearances, and harassment by the security forces. It has, however, stayed away from partisan politics and has not registered as a traditional political party capable of awarding election tickets.
Still, many across former FATA are eager to participate in the election. Many first-time candidates feel they are making a difference. Nahid Afridi, a candidate for the ANP, is the only woman contesting in an all-male election field in the conservative rural district of Khyber that encompasses the historic Khyber Pass.
“Women are extending a lot of support and are constantly boosting my morale,” she told Radio Mashaal. “They told me that they will vote for me because men have not resolved their problems.”
But some political leaders argue that the election is unlikely to be fair and transparent because lasting peace and stability have not returned to the region.
“The fact that the election commission and [Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s] provincial government have called for the army’s help in holding the polls in 16 constituencies indicates their failure,” Sikandar Sherpao, the leader of the Qaumi Watan Party, told Radio Mashaal.
“It also proves that their claims about restoring peace to the region are false,” he noted.
Radio Mashaal correspondents Shabbir Jan and Ghulam Ghous continued reporting to this story from Peshawar.