Over 2.8 million voters from Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region will go to the landmark polls on Saturday to elect their representatives for the provincial assembly -- the first time in the region's history.
Formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) -- a conglomerate of seven semi-autonomous regions -- is going to witness the first ever polls after being merged with the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KP) province in line with a constitutional amendment by the parliament last year.
Previously, the residents of the seven tribal agencies -- now districts -- were allowed to take part only in the country’s lower house -- the National Assembly -- polls.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan, more than 2.8 million registered voters -- 1.7 million male and 1.13 million female -- will be eligible to vote to elect 16 members of the provincial assembly.
A total of 285 candidates are contesting the elections, of which only two are women. Awami National Party (ANP) and Jamat-e-Islami have fielded the two women candidates from Khyber and Kurram districts respectively.
Major political parties taking part in the polls are, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), key opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), ANP and Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) -- an ethnic nationalist movement in the country's northwestern and southwestern Pashtun-populated areas.
The PTM, which is popular in restive North and South Waziristan, had clinched both National Assembly seats for the two districts in 2018 elections. However, both parliamentarians -- Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar -- are currently in jail for allegedly attacking a military checkpoint in North Waziristan during a protest demonstration in May this year.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI -- likely to win highest number of seats -- is the only party that has fielded candidates for all the 16 constituencies.
Jamaat-e-Islami is hopeful to clinch seats from Bajaur district -- its stronghold -- whereas, the JUI -- another mainstream religious party -- is expected to perform well in South Waziristan, and Kurram districts.
In addition to 16 seats, there are five reserved seats -- four for women and 1 for minorities -- which will be filled in line with the number of votes each party attains in the general polls.
Bajaur district consists of the largest number of voters i.e. 534,003 followed by Khyber district, which has 532,087 voters. Three seats each have been allocated for the two districts.
A total of 1,896 polling stations have been set up for the polling, of which over 450 have been declared sensitive by the election commission.
The commission has sought army’s assistance for smooth holding of elections in the region, which is still facing threats from on-the-run militants.
Initially, it had decided to depute army troops inside and outside the polling stations, which was opposed by the opposition.
Accepting the opposition parties’ demand, the country's top electoral body has announced to depute the army troops only outside the polling stations to maintain law and order. However, the troops will stay inside those polling stations which are declared “sensitive” by the election authorities.
Candidates and their supporters took out large rallies and public meetings, in a last-ditch effort, to woo the voters on the last day of the election campaigning on Thursday.
Streets in all the seven tribal districts -- once known as a child poster of militancy -- including North Waziristan, former headquarters of Pakistani Taliban’s mother group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), are festooned with human-size portraits of the candidates apart from election banners and posters.
Khattak dance -- a traditional Pashtun dance -- to the drum-beating is an essential part of election rallies across the tribal region, which borders neighboring Afghanistan.
“It’s amazing. I never saw this kind of enthusiasm in previous elections [for the lower house],” Azam Afridi, a resident of Khyber district told Anadolu Agency minutes after he took part in an election rally.
“Not even in the main towns but also in far-flung areas, candidates have campaigned freely. Thousands participated in each rally across Khyber during the last two weeks,” he said.
Together with North Waziristan, Khyber was one of the tribal areas where army had launched a large-scale onslaught in 2014 to eliminate TTP and its affiliates.
According to Afridi, a tough contest is expected between independent and PTI candidates for the three provincial assembly seats.
Hafizullah Wazir, a local journalist from Wana -- the capital of South Waziristan district -- shares a similar view.
“People, especially youths are very enthusiastic to vote. Many of them will be casting vote for the first time,” Wazir told Anadolu Agency by telephone.
“Tribesmen are generally happy with the merger. They feel happy to be mainstreamed,” he maintained.
Wazir expects a showdown mainly between the PTI and the JUI for the two seats of the provincial assembly in South Waziristan followed by the PTM, which might appear as a “dark horse”.
“These elections mean a lot to us. It means identity, basic civil and judicial rights access to high and supreme courts, and right of political activities,” Wazir said referring to lifting of a decades-long ban on political gatherings and tribesmen’s access to the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court following merger with KP province.
Before merger, the FATA was run through a British era law -- Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) -- under which tribesmen had no right to challenge the local government administrator -- known as political agent -- or the Jirga (assembly of elders) in any court of law.
“Tribesmen are generally happy with the merger as we will no more be considered, at least officially, tribesmen. They feel happy to be mainstreamed and recognized as any other citizen of Pakistan,” he maintained.
Army had also launched an operation in South Waziristan -- the founding headquarters of the TTP -- in 2009, which pushed the militants towards North Waziristan and other tribal regions.
The series of military operations had displaced over 1.5 million tribesmen, mainly from North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Khyber. Around 90% of them, according to government statistics, have returned to their homes in recent years following clearance of their respective areas.
*Islamuddin Sajid in Islamabad contributed to this story.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.