More parliamentary seats for tribal areas

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By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), located along the northwestern region of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, were always treated differently from other regions of the country since Pakistan became a new nation in 1947. 
Last May, under the 25th Constitutional Amendment, Pakistan’s parliament passed legislation to merge the country’s tribal regions along the Afghan border with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, a key step in ending the area’s colonial era governance system and giving equal rights and resources to its five million population. Without provincial status, the tribals regions have remained backward and underdeveloped. Much of the area lacks clean water and has little to no health care, education, telecommunication, and infrastructure facilities. 

The top it all, the tribal areas have always been governed by an old system of colonial laws which denied basic legal rights to its people. Coupled with the lack of economic development, the regulations led to an enduring sense of neglect and disenfranchisement. Due to their lawless, the tribal regions also became an easy haven for militants, gun runners, and drug smugglers. The Pakistani military has carried out dozens of military operations to flush out militants in the last decade, causing mass internal displacement of tribal populations.
According to the new constitutional amendment, separate seats allocated for FATA in the two houses of parliament, 12 in the National Assembly and 8 in the Senate, have been abolished and instead Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s total seats in the National Assembly have been increased from 48 to 55. The amendment has also provided for representation of the erstwhile FATA in the provincial KP assembly for which by-elections are scheduled for July 2, 2019, by the Election Commission. 
This is going to be the first time in the history of erstwhile FATA that its people will vote for their representatives in a provincial assembly. Despite punishing hot weather, there is unprecedented enthusiasm over this. The elections have extraordinary significance because people in the area will be participating in a democratic activity at this scale after decades of terrorism and war which have claimed thousands of lives and seen private and public property and commercial infrastructure destroyed on a large scale. The upcoming election and the political activity generated by it is thus going to have great therapeutic value for the people of the area who will be part of mainstream political institutions for the first time in memory.

While the election cycle is in full swing, the National Assembly has also passed the 26th Constitutional Amendment on May 13 this year to increase the number of seats for former FATA from 16 to 24 in the KP assembly and restore its 12 seats in the National Assembly which were reduced to 7 under the 25th amendment. 
The amendment will need to be passed in the Senate as well before it becomes a part of the constitution but this, unless senators have a last minute change of heart, is almost guaranteed. 
Once the amendment becomes law, the election commission will need to redraw the Provincial Assembly constituencies and re-start the election cycle afresh. The People of FATA, deprived of representation in a provincial assembly for 72 years, will have to live without it for just about another year and a half.
While the planned by-elections for former FATA will be scuttled after the passage of the 26th Amendment, there is no guarantee that the amendment will survive the likely legal challenges. The most potent threat to the proposed amendment will be from Article 51(5) of the constitution which sets population as the only basis for the allocation of seats to the provinces in the National Assembly. Although six seats allocated to KP in the National Assembly under the 25th Amendment were on the basis of the population, the increase proposed under the 26th amendment is not. 
The amendment, therefore, may be challenged in a superior court. Some supporters maintain that this increase is meant to compensate former FATA for the sacrifices rendered during the war against terrorism. Some other supporters felt that the 2017 census did not accurately record the population of FATA as many of its people were displaced then. Both these arguments may not withstand scrutiny.
The argument of sacrifices rendered by the people of FATA in the war on terror may open a Pandora’s box because, for example, Balochistan province, where there is an ongoing separatist insurgency which the army has for years been trying to quell through successive military operations, may also claim that it has endured huge sacrifices. In addition, Balochistan, the country’s largest province in terms of size, has National Assembly Constituencies spread over much larger areas than in any other province, reinforcing its claim to have more seats allocated to the province.
The argument of the allegedly inaccurate census has been raised by Sindh province as well, especially in the port city of Karachi, Pakistan’s financial hub. Some other regions also have similar grievances. If the argument is accepted in the case of FATA, it may be difficult to deny the same ‘relief’ to others.
Apparently, legislation as important as a constitutional amendment, and on a subject as critical as the allocation of seats to provinces, has been passed by the National Assembly without any substantive debate and deep thinking. Even the recommendations of the Standing Committee were ignored. Sadly, this development does not earn huge credit for the National Assembly.
(The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.)