Voters in the turbulent former tribal zones of northwestern Pakistan went to the polls on Saturday in the first provincial elections since the region lost the semi-autonomous status it had held since the British colonial era.
The former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a mountainous cluster of seven districts and six towns along the Afghan border that resisted efforts at outside control for hundreds of years, were merged into the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last May.
The result of the vote for the provincial assembly is unlikely to have much direct impact on national politics or Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government in Islamabad.
But the election marks a significant milestone for a region that has been a byword for unrest since before the days of the British rulers of India, who generally left tribal elders to administer their own justice in a system that continued after Pakistan gained its independence in 1947.
“It is a historic day,” said Ajmal Wazir, the government’s adviser on the tribal areas. “The polling process is continuing smoothly.”
The elections will see 16 seats contested by 285 candidates from all the main national parties as well as independents. But the issue of how parliamentary democracy can be brought to a region that was for centuries governed by often harsh tribal custom has added uncertainty to the process.
Tens of thousands of troops and special police units have been sent to the province for polling day but there were many complaints of vote-rigging and influence peddling by some of the candidates and their supporters.
“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?” he asked.
In the past two decades, the region became known as a haven for militant jihadi groups operating on both sides of the border with Afghanistan and tens of thousands died during a years-long campaign by the military to crush the militants.
Recently, it has also become a focus for opposition to the government and the military from ethnic Pashtuns in the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement viewed with extreme suspicion by the army and security services who see it as a threat to national unity.
Pakistan’s army spent years fighting the Taliban and other groups in the region although the military says its focus has shifted from active combat operations to consolidating government administration.