A New Dawn for Pakistan's Tribal Areas?
A New Dawn for Pakistan's Tribal Areas?
Op-Ed / Asia 2 minutes

A New Dawn for Pakistan's Tribal Areas?

On August 12, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed the extension of the Political Party Order (2002) to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), fulfilling one of his government's key pledges related to the militancy-ridden tribal belt. This is the first piece of good news for residents there since Zardari's announcement two years ago, on August 14, 2009, to introduce reforms to FATA's oppressive system of governance -- reforms later blocked by the military.

This move will allow political parties to operate legally in FATA for the first time. Since adult franchise was extended to the tribal belt in 1997, its parliamentarians were elected on a non-party basis and had virtually no authority to legislate for their constituents. Yet, with twelve seats in the lower house, the National Assembly, and eight seats in the Senate, the FATA bloc formed a sizeable source of votes in a legislature typically led by coalition governments with thin parliamentary majorities. Held by independents, these 20 votes were often for sale.

Now, as proper members of mainstream political parties, FATA's legislators will represent and be subject to party policy, and able to campaign on party platforms in the next election. Political party recruitment and activism, even in a controlled environment, will also help broaden participation beyond a relatively small tribal elite of maliks (tribal elders), and fill a political vacuum that militants, smugglers and other criminals, big and small, have exploited for decades. Nevertheless, much more still needs to be done to enfranchise FATA's more than four million residents, who remain second-class citizens due to a colonial-era legal framework, codified in the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901, which denies them fundamental constitutional rights.

The president has also reportedly amended the FCR to require that a prisoner be produced before the authorities within 24 hours of arrest, and given the right to bail, something that was previously denied to tribal populations. The president's spokesman said that FCR provisions that allow collective punishment of an entire tribe for crimes committed by a member or on their territory, would be "softened" -- indicating that perhaps women, children and elderly will be exempt from the collective punishment clause, as proposed in 2009. While this, too, is welcome, and could win some goodwill amongst the FATA public, overall the reforms are less ambitious than the package Zardari announced two years ago. In addition to the current measures, the earlier package envisaged auditing the funds received and disbursed by the political agent, the centrally-appointed bureaucrat who heads the administration of an individual tribal agency. Such accountability is vital, given a political agent's unchecked executive, judicial and financial authority in the areas he governs.

The last time the government announced the extension of the Political Party Order, key political parties set up offices in tribal agencies and began planning recruitment drives, only to have to vacate when the amendments to the extension were not formally adopted. We can, therefore, expect to see a surge of political mobilization, which could in turn move FATA closer to Pakistan's mainstream.

In the long term, however, to address the underdevelopment and public alienation that has resulted from an antiquated, oppressive system of governance that has in turn bred violent crime and religious militancy, there will be no alternative to incorporating FATA into the constitutional framework of Pakistan, without exceptions. This means: Extending the jurisdiction of the federal and provincial courts to the region; extending political representation to the provincial level; ending the concentration of power in the hands of unaccountable political agents; and making this vital region subject to all the laws of the land. Until then, FATA's bureaucracy, and not elected representatives, will continue to control day-to-day governance as it has since 1947. The president has taken a major first step. He should soon follow it up with more.

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