Pakistan’s tribal areas held their first ever provincial elections yesterday amid high security, a key step bringing the northwestern region into the political mainstream after years of turmoil fuelled by militancy.
The seven remote districts along the border with Afghanistan were once a focal point in the global war on terror but were brought under the control of Pakistani authorities after the passage of legislation last year.
Instead of the Taliban’s white and black flags, the colourful flags of political parties were seen fluttering atop houses, shops and other buildings in the region.
“We will choose our representatives today and hope they will address the problems people face in the region,” a voter told Geo TV in front of a polling station.
“It is a historic day,” said Ajmal Wazir, the government’s adviser on the tribal areas. “The polling process is continuing smoothly.”
Not everyone is happy, however.
“It’s the first time we are electing our representatives for the provincial assembly, but unfortunately most of the candidates are lavishly spending money on their political campaigns and buying votes,” said one tribesman, Bilal Rahman Afridi, in Jamrud subdivision of Khyber tribal district. “How can they serve us when they are elected on the basis of their wealth?”
More than 2.8mn people lined up to vote for 16 representatives for the provincial assembly after polls opened yesterday morning, Suhail Khan, a spokesman for the election commission, told AFP.
No violence was reported and polls closed at 5pm without any disturbances, officials said.
The previously semi-autonomous region operated under a colonial-era arrangement that endorsed collective punishment and created a fertile environment for militancy.
The seven tribal districts – Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, North Waziristan, Orakzai, and South Waziristan – are home to some 5mn residents, mainly ethnic Pashtuns.
They were previously only allowed to elect representatives for the National Assembly in Islamabad.
Some 285 candidates from all political parties, including the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), are contesting the elections.
Two women – Naheed Afridi from the Awami National Party (ANP) and Malasa from the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) – are also seeking seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly.
“I know I can’t win in a male-dominated, deeply conservative area. But I wanted to make a point that women can step out of home and take on anything if they are brave enough,” Afridi, 41, who is contesting a constituency in Khyber district, told DPA a day before the elections.
“It is extremely difficult to go out and convince people to vote for a woman but I decided to challenge the taboo. Even if I don’t win, my campaigning will give girls from the region to stand up to anything in future,” she said.
Around 35,000 security personnel, including paramilitary forces, were dispatched across the region.
Army troops were deployed at all 1,897 polling stations, said election commission spokesman Altaf Khan.
According to the provincial election commissioner, results in elections would be released on WhatsApp due to a network issue in the area.
Legislation passed last year extended the writ of Pakistani courts to the area, with hopes that it would bring development assistance to the region which Washington has long insisted provides safe havens to militants including the Taliban and Al Qaeda – an allegation that Islamabad denies.
Security has improved in the region in recent years, with the Pakistani military carrying out multiple operations there.
However, lower-level attacks still occur and the area remains notorious for the availability of guns and drugs.
For analysts like Mian Asif, the lack of political franchise was the main factor that helped Islamist militants linked to Al Qaeda establish their bases in the rugged region after crossing into Pakistan from neighbouring Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US.
“There was a political vacuum and people were highly religious. Al Qaeda has exploited religious sentiments to fill in to that space,” explained the analyst based in Peshawar.