Fata-KP merger

Political parties are demanding elections in Fata but there isn’t enough time now to hold the polls for the KP Assembly in the tribal districts on July 25

Fata-KP merger

It is becoming hard for the government to come up to the expectations of all those seeking quick and far-reaching reforms in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) that was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province as a result of constitutional amendment on May 28.

The latest demand, highlighted by a number of political parties and rights activists, concerns holding election for the provincial assembly of KP in the newly designated tribal districts on July 25 instead of delaying it until next year. They are arguing that the voters in the recently merged tribal areas should be enabled to vote for their representatives in both the National Assembly and the KP Assembly on the same date as rest of the electorate in Pakistan.

Earlier, KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak just before completing his five-year term wrote a letter to the Election Commission of Pakistan to make a strong case for holding the polls for the provincial assembly in the tribal districts on July 25. He highlighted a valid point by arguing that delaying the polls in old Fata would create complications because the provincial assembly would remain incomplete until the lawmakers from the tribal districts are elected and are able to take part in the election for chief minister, speaker and deputy speaker.

Pervez Khattak, a seasoned politician who has been in politics for more than 30 years, cautioned that the belated election of 23 legislators from Fata to the provincial assembly in 2019 as planned would cause uncertainty. He pointed out that the outcome of the delayed polls in the tribal district could lead to a shift in the balance of power in the KP legislature. Besides, he said, the incumbent government holding these polls could face rigging allegations from the losing candidates and parties.

This demand has also been made by deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ANP leader Asfandyar Wali Khan, Qaumi Watan Party head Aftab Sherpao and others. In fact, the demand is gradually being endorsed by more people, including politicians and activists from erstwhile Fata. Though there isn’t enough time now to hold the polls for the KP Assembly in the tribal districts on July 25 as the final date for the candidates to file nomination papers would end soon, this hasn’t stopped the politicians from making and reiterating this demand.

According to the timelines announced by the government regarding the plan for Fata’s merger with KP, the polls for the 23 seats in the tribal districts for KP Assembly would be held in 2019 within one year after the July 2018 general election in the country. If the plan materialises, the provincial assembly polls in the tribal districts ought to be organised in July 2019. Meeting this target seems challenging and this could be the reason October 2019 is mentioned as a more realistic timeframe for holding the provincial assembly election in the seven tribal districts, which were previously known as tribal agencies, and the six sub-divisions that before the merger were called Frontier Regions.

Obviously, the 23 seats in the provincial assembly of KP would be an important bloc and could affect the strength of political parties in the legislature. These include 18 general seats and four reserved for women and one for minorities, both for the first time in erstwhile Fata’s history. Most of the elected lawmakers from the tribal districts in keeping with tradition would join the ruling party, though they would have a high value in case the treasury and opposition benches don’t have a wide difference in terms of their strength in the assembly.

Whenever in 2019 the election for KP Assembly in the tribal districts is held, it would be the third time that the voters in the former Fata would be exercising their right to vote in a year or two. First, they would elect the 12 members of the National Assembly from the tribal districts on July 25, 2018. Second, the tribal voters would go to the polls to elect their local governments in October 2018 as is being planned, or more realistically in May 2019 along with rest of KP when the local bodies’ in the province would have completed their five-year term. This would have been unimaginable before the merger. It could be justifiably termed as the fruit of the merger as there would have been no election for the local governments and the provincial assembly in Fata if it had not been merged with KP. Also, we need to remember that the tribespeople got the right to vote under the adult franchise system in 1997 because until then only the chosen maliks (tribal elders) could take part in the elections as voters and candidates.

Now that the euphoria over Fata’s historic merger with KP is over, it has dawned on the federal and provincial bureaucracy that mistakes were made in the legislation due to the haste displayed by the PML-N government for tabling the Fata Reforms Bill in the parliament towards the fag end of its five-year rule. The PML-N wanted to claim credit for undertaking the path-breaking reforms after having initiated the process in late 2015 when it constituted the Sartaj Aziz-led Fata Reforms Committee and then slowing down due to the opposition by two of its allies, Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s PkMAP.

No doubt there was a need for the President of Pakistan to promulgate the Fata Interim Governance Regulation, 2018 for administering the erstwhile Fata in the interim period until a proper judicial system was set up in place of the 119-year old, colonial era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that was repealed following the constitutional amendment. However, this was done in a hurry and led to flaws which were highlighted by the KP government through Chief Secretary Mohammad Azam Khan in a letter to the federal government. He pointed out that abolition of Article 247 of the Constitution had created an administrative vacuum and certain existing rules and regulations no longer had a legal cover because the President’s powers to make regulations had been taken away.

The KP government also voiced concern about lack of consensus among the four provinces to give up part of their shares in the National Finance Commission award so that the hopelessly under-developed Fata could be provided the promised Rs1 trillion development funds for the next 10 years to try and bring it at par with rest of the country. Though Sartaj Aziz is confident that the provinces had agreed to help accelerate Fata’s development, the KP government is seeking a written and binding commitment that the Rs100 billion a year funds would be made available for the purpose.

Another challenge would be building the capacity of departments operating in the tribal districts to be able to spend the huge amount of special funds and improve security further in areas vulnerable to threats from Pakistani militants, mostly based across the border in Afghanistan. Without security and timely provision of funds, implementation of Fata reforms would miss targets and even cause frustration among tribespeople who expect positive improvements in their lives in the post-merger period.

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There are other issues that are cropping up. Demands have been made by political parties, candidates and also tribal elders that some of the former political agents, now renamed deputy commissioners, should be transferred to ensure credible elections. The scrapping of the agency development fund controlled by the political agents was welcomed as it was alleged the money was being misused, but already the provincial bureaucracy is arguing that the federal government should devise an alternative means of funding to meet some of the needs that can no longer be funded.

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court has been extended to the tribal districts and the latter has started hearing at least one appeal against the judgment of a political agent, the new judicial system would take time and cost Rs14 billion to be ready to deliver justice under the new dispensation to the tribespeople. And the introduction of policing system in the tribal districts too would need time and resources.

Fata-KP merger