x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Democracy lands in Pakistan's tribal regions

The federally administered tribal area, or Fata, is the last region of Pakistan to be granted democracy. The first of the two presidential orders this month lifted a ban on political party activity in the Fata, a major step toward universal suffrage.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 17, 2009. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM MILITARY POLITICS)
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 17, 2009. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (BELGIUM MILITARY POLITICS)

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan has extended democracy to tribal regions bordering Afghanistan as part of an initiative to undermine Taliban militants based in the region.

Signing two orders, the president, Asif Ali Zardari, said on Friday: "A bigger challenge awaits us and that is the challenge of defeating the militant mindset."

"In the long run, we must defeat the militant mindset to defend our country, our democracy, our institutions, and our way of life," he said at a signing ceremony attended by political party chiefs and tribal elders.

The federally administered tribal area, or Fata, is the last region of Pakistan to be granted democracy. The first of the two presidential orders lifted a ban on political party activity in the Fata - a major step toward universal suffrage, which will go into effect at the next general election, to be held by January 2013.

The second presidential order relaxed features of the colonialist law-and-order system that provided for collective punishment of tribes.

Pakistan has been ruled by the military for half its 64-year history, most recently between 1999 and 2008. The presidential orders were timed to coincide with independence celebrations today.

Mr Zardari said the reforms reflected the government's gratitude to the 1.7 million residents of the Fata, who have suffered greatly since Tehrik-i-Taliban and Al Qaeda militants based there launched an insurgency in 2003.

Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes and live as refugees for up to three years, after the Pakistani military launched operations in late 2008 to regain control of territory seized by the militants.

The military's operations have broadly re-established the government's control but the militants continue to pose a serious threat, and have forced the government to commit nearly half of its standing army to the region.

The Fata is currently represented in the federal parliament by independents elected by tribal councils, known as jirga.

However, officials known as political agents and army commanders have held real power in the jirga system that has provided little opportunity for economic development, and has been based largely on government bribes to tribal elders charged with keeping the peace.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, on Friday said the militant insurgents had exploited popular discontent with the jirga system. They subsequently murdered hundreds of tribal elders in an effort to impose their will in the region.

"The Fata has been a neglected, as well as exploited, area in the past, making it vulnerable to the forces of extremism and terrorism," Mr Gilani said at the signing ceremony.

However, the prime minister said the success of the democratic initiative in the Fata hung on rapid improvements in infrastructure to improve residents' quality of life, and generate trade and employment.

Mr Gilani said a proposed United States-funded project for "reconstruction opportunity zones" needed to be expedited to maximise the effect of the reforms.

Mr Zardari stopped short of altogether scrapping the existing system of governance, introduced by the British-Indian colonial government in 1901, because it would have created a dangerous administrative void.

Fata politicians and residents are campaigning for the granting of provincial status to the region, but its comparatively tiny population of 1.7 million and lack of revenue-generating resources are major impediments.

Pashtun nationalist politicians allied with the governing Pakistan People's Party want the Fata to be merged into the adjacent Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, to extend their power base.

Mr Zardari said on Friday that any decision would require a political consensus, signalling that, for the foreseeable future, the Fata would remain under the governance of the federal government.

In regard to lifting of the collective punishment law, the president's spokesman, Farhat-ullah Baber, told journalists Friday in Islamabad that detainees in the Fata would now enjoy similar legal rights to other Pakistanis, and have a right of appeal to a new tribune of ranking officials.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae