ISLAMABAD — For the first time ever, political parties have started campaigning for votes in the militant-infested tribal areas of Pakistan that border Afghanistan, ahead of a general election likely within the next 12 months.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari in August lifted a 64-year ban on political party activity in the seven federally administered tribal areas, saying the reforms would help defeat the "militant mindset" there.
However, the politicians leading party campaigns in the tribal areas fear that intimidation by the Taliban and human rights abuses by Pakistani security authorities could make a free and fair election virtually impossible.
In the tribal areas, "there is no political government, but one run by the security authorities ... who are responsible for the widespread disappearances of residents suspected of involvement in the insurgency," said Maulana Rahat Hussain, a former senator.
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"As long as power remains delegated to them, the democratic process won't work," he said.
Hussain is leading electioneering in the tribal areas for the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, or JUI. The country's most popular religious party, the JUI is a former ally of the Pakistani Taliban that broke with the group when it launched an insurgency in 2007. The Taliban subsequently started suicide attacks against the party's leadership, killing several prominent cleric-politicians, and only just missing its chief, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman.
The JUI has held political rallies across the tribal areas over the last two weeks, including one at Mir Ali in North Waziristan, a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban insurgents.
The mountainous Dattakhel area neighboring Mir Ali is also a haven for fugitive al Qaida leaders and has been a focal point of U.S. drone strikes since 2009.
Hussain said the Taliban distributed pamphlets in the area warning residents not to attend the rally in Mir Ali and threatened him personally. Photographs of JUI cleric-politicians in the company of women in fancy clothes — taken at a wedding — were also distributed in an attempt to defame them among their conservative base, he added.
Nonetheless, the JUI rally attracted an estimated 15,000 tribesmen, local journalists said.
JUI candidates — contesting as independents because of the ban on parties — won National Assembly seats in North Waziristan and neighboring South Waziristan in 1997 and 2008, the first elections held in the tribal areas in which all adults were allowed to vote. In practice, however, that meant only that males could vote, because tribal traditions prevented women from casting ballots.
Despite Zardari's reforms, the estimated 5 million residents of the region are still governed largely by 19th century British colonial laws and don't enjoy the fundamental rights guaranteed by Pakistan's constitution.
Most power remains in the hands of administrators known as political agents, who enforce law and order through tribal and clan councils that, in turn, are collectively responsible for the areas they live in. The agents use paramilitary forces to punish the clans and tribes, often by levying massive fines, demolishing homes and barring them access to settled areas of Pakistan, politicians said.
The reforms have set up an appeals process for residents to contest abuses, but only to a tribunal headed by a senior civil servant. They continue to have no access to Pakistan's Supreme Court — which would leave politicians no legal recourse to contest voting irregularities, secular parties said.
"If the Taliban disrupts polling at some stations, but the results are upheld by the election commission, we won't be able to launch an appeal to the judiciary," said Ajmal Khan Wazir, the senior vice president of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, which ran third at the last general election in 2008.
Although his party is a key partner in Pakistan's ruling coalition, Wazir dismissed the electoral reforms as "a vile joke" because of the security environment.
"There are so many lethal stakeholders. How many can one confront? If you're friends with one, all the others become your enemies," said Wazir, a resident of South Waziristan who, like most of his clansmen, has migrated to Dera Ismail Khan, the nearest city.
"It's virtually impossible for a (secular) politician like me to even enter" the region, he added.
With mainstream Pakistani politicians fearful to campaign in the region, they can't lobby potential supporters to register as voters — making any election result unrepresentative.
Wazir said the results of the 2008 general election had most winners elected with 10,000 votes or less, a fraction of the number of eligible voters.
The 16 sitting members of Parliament from the tribal areas are largely irrelevant to their constituents anyway, because even the reformed laws prevent them from voting for bills pertaining to the tribal areas — although they can vote on all other bills sent to Parliament.
Analysts in Islamabad said the reforms were generally viewed as positive by the population but posed a chicken-or-egg dilemma to voters and the government.
"There are two schools of thought: One says peace is impossible without democratic reforms; the other says there's no point to the reforms unless peace comes first," said Ashraf Ali, president of the FATA Research Center, an independent research organization that studies the federally administered tribal areas.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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