By Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud

On May 24, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment granting equal citizenship to millions of people in its volatile northwestern tribal region, ending a century-old archaic legal regime established during British colonization.

The area was governed under a set of repressive laws known as the Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR), most of which date  back to the days of the British Raj.

Under the FCR, residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were denied the right of appeal against detention, the right of legal representation in a Pakistani court and the right to present evidence in the court.

The empire introduced this set of harsh administrative laws to forcefully tame the fiercely independent tribesmen who for decades had led armed rebellions against the British. The law remained intact even after the British  left and the Pakistani successive rulers, both military and civilian, used them as legal instruments to rule the tribesmen and to create a ‘buffer zone’ between mainland Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Before it was brought into the mainstream, FATA was commonly known as a lawless tribal region, regarded as a sanctuary for militants and illicit trade route for drugs and guns. In the 80s the area became a base where militants, both local and those hailing from myriad nationalities of Muslim world, were trained, equipped and dispatched to fight against the Soviet army across the border in Afghanistan.

The amendment paved the way for the merger of the FATAtribal region that borders Afghanistan with the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, making the region both politically and legally streamlined.

This election is different. As the polls draw nearer, FATA, like the rest of Pakistan, is gripped by election fever. Since their mainstreaming with the rest of Pakistan, the people of FATA are embracing the upcoming general elections in Pakistan with unprecedented zeal and enthusiasm.

Preparations are underway all across FATA as contesting candidates from all parties conduct rallies, hold corner meetings, and put up elections posters in a bid for votes.

In the previous general elections of 2008 and 2013, candidates in the tribal area sought support from the the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the feared umbrella organization of the Pakistani Taliban. They maintained influence in vast swaths of FATA and ran a parallel state functions in the area through killings and intimidation.

“There was a common perception among tribesmen that those two previous elections were largely rigged by a majority of the successful candidates through Taliban influence,” said  Ajmal Khan Wazir, a senior politician from Pakistan’sTehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. “I am personally aware of few incidents where a candidate winning in the night was declared failed in the morning. The Taliban used to snatch ballot boxes and stuffed them with votes for their favoured candidates or they set them on fire to deny the winning candidate from victory.”

The 2018 general elections are considered to be the first relatively peaceful ones since the end of years of militancy in the region, as Taliban influence and presence has almost vanished due to a series of military operations in the area.

This time an unprecedented sense of hope and optimism exists among the youth in the region ahead of the polls.

In interviews with young voters, the majority of them say they will be voting for the first time.

Many of them are closely following the candidates, their campaigns, discussing their past performances as parliamentarians and then taking the discussion on to social media to generate more debate.

“Elections always have a moderating effect. In the specific situation of Pakistani tribal area, free and fair elections will help fill the vacuum created through the long collapsed administrative and social structure that was being unnaturally propped up by the state,” said professor Ijaz Khan, former chairman of Department of International Relations at the Peshawar University and renowned author and columnist.

During a recent visit to the Khyber tribal district, both the candidates contesting elections and their supporters could be seen canvassing and campaigning as others do elsewhere in the country.

“God has given us the opportunity to decide our future through these elections. It would be a great blessing if we elect the right candidate who knows how to fight for our rights in the parliament,” said Muhammad Imran Afridi, a philosophy student at Peshawar University from Jamrud town in the Khyber tribal district.

Traditionally, members of parliament from the tribal regions have played a key role in the formation of government at the federal level and the passing of laws in the parliament. Every major political party in the parliament would have to seek their support.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has registered 2.51 million voters from Fata who would exercise their right of voting for over 300 candidates in the upcoming elections from 12 different constituencies.

A recently surfaced Pashtun grassroots rights movement, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM, Pashtun Protection Movement) has inspired a broad political awakening in FATA. Over the last six months the movement has been mobilizing supporters around the country, encouraging people to speak out about human rights violations and demanding peace and security for Pashtuns.

Two founding members of PTM, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, are contesting elections from their home towns South Waziristan and North Waziristan respectively. Both the candidates enjoy overwhelming support in their respective constituencies.

“For the first time someone raises the plight of Pashtuns so genuinely, naming and shaming the state organs for turning the Pashtun belt into a battlefield for their rotten strategic objectives elsewhere,” said Taj Muhammad, a leading political figure from Wana, a major city in south Waziristan. “That’s why the youth in these two constituencies overwhelmingly support them.”

The PTM has distanced itself from elections, saying that it is a social movement and only aims at protecting the fundamental human rights of the ethnic Pashtuns living in Pakistan and has nothing to do with politics.

It is pertinent to mention that PTM is explicitly a non-violent movement and its demands are in line with the Pakistani constitution.

Yet it has injected a new level of political awareness and activism among voters and candidates.

“Though PTM is not formally part of elections, but its impact can be felt all over, and not just in the two constituencies where two of its leaders are contesting as independent candidates. PTM neither supports nor opposes them. The most important impact of PTM is that the people of FATA feel strong enough to support or oppose any candidate that they want, without fear of the government machinery or the terrorists,” Professor Khan added. “By comparison with earlier elections, the local government administration, the terrorists, and tribal affinity mattered much more while voting, than today, even if not absolutely absent. The PTM is having a modernizing impact in this sense on the society.”