Candidates in tribal region cry ‘foul’ as public gatherings banned ahead of July polls
A government ban on public gatherings in North Waziristan ahead of the tribal district’s first provincial assembly election next month has prompted a backlash from politicians who accuse the ruling party of trying to restrict electioneering and provide an unfair advantage to its own candidates.
Last May, Pakistan’s parliament passed legislation to merge the country’s tribal regions along the Afghan border with the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, ending the region’s much-criticized colonial era governance system and bringing it under the political and legal mainstream.
The erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) constituted a semi-autonomous region expanding over seven big district and six towns, governed for over 150 years by colonial era tribal laws.
Elections in the newly merged provincial assembly session are slated for July 2 but candidates say the imposition for one month of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, a maintenance of public order law that bans public gatherings, has restricted campaigning.
Jamal Dawar, an independent candidate from the provincial assembly constituency PK-111, said the imposition of the law was a “deliberate” attempt by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party to stop popular candidates from running their campaigns.
“I believe that candidates fielded by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf are weak and will not be able to compete with their rivals. This has prompted the local administration to impose a ban on political gatherings,” Dawar said.
KP Information Minister Shaukat Yousafzai said the imposition of Section 144 was “purely an administrative issue and [had] nothing to do with politics.”
“The allegations that Section 144 is imposed to restrict the election campaign of our rival candidates and assertions that the PTI is weak in tribal areas are totally baseless and childish,” he told Arab News. “The entire country has witnessed the precarious security situation in North Waziristan in the last couple of weeks.”
A government notification said sit-ins, protest rallies, public meetings, and public gatherings of five or more people had been banned in North Waziristan “due to the current law and order situation, threats of militancy and other sabotage activities.”
District administration officials said the ban on large gatherings was imposed in the wake of a series of recent attacks on security forces. On Saturday, four soldiers were killed and another four were wounded by a roadside bomb blast in North Waziristan.
The Pakistani Taliban, which is separate from the Afghan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Mohammad Khurasani, a spokesman for the movement, many of whose members are based across the border in Afghanistan.
Pakistani forces have conducted a series of operations against militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan over recent years, although officials now say the area has largely been pacified.
Problems have continued, however, and security officials said at least 10 soldiers have been killed and 35 wounded over the past month in the Khar Qamar area, which has also seen growing tensions with local ethnic Pashtun activists from the civil rights Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM).
Fida Dawar, another politician contesting the July elections, said he believed Section 144 had been imposed to obstruct candidates running against the PTI.
“We categorically reject this move,” Dawar said. “PTI knows its candidates cannot secure a victory. That’s why they are trying to impede our election campaigns.”
“Elections campaigns were going well in the district, but they have been hindered by the administration,” Malik Ghulam Wazir, a tribal elder, told Arab News. “This is an injustice and an attempt to deprive people of their right to elect their true representatives.”
PTI candidate Muhammad Iqbal rejected the claims of his rival candidates, saying the ruling party enjoyed widespread support in the area and was not hampering elections.
“You can see for yourself that the law and order situation has deteriorated in the district,” he said, referring to recent incidents of violence. “I think it was a wise move [to impose Section 144] to ensure stability in the area since it will also pave the way for a safe and secure electoral exercise.”
“Candidates and parties win and lose elections but leveling untrue allegations are only aimed at tarnishing the popularity of PTI in tribal areas,” provincial information minister Yousafzai said.