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The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.

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FATA residents and representatives attend a regional meeting in 2008.

President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent decision to extend political and legal reforms to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is the result of a lengthy effort by political parties and other organizations to bring a more democratic system of governance to a region considered a haven for militants and religious extremists.

FATA, with a population of just over three million, is a mountainous area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The region is politically and economically marginalized and its residents do not have the same basic legal and political rights as the rest of the country.  The lack of effective governance has contributed to the empowerment of forces such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Under Pakistan’s constitution, the parliament does not have jurisdiction in FATA and only the president can extend its acts to the region.  FATA residents were granted the right to vote in 1996. But political parties are prohibited from operating there, and parliamentarians are elected as independents.  Residents remain isolated and subject to a strict form of tribal and religious law imposed by Islamic militants.

As a result, President Zardari’s decision represents a significant change.  On Aug. 12, he signed two orders extending Pakistan’s Political Parties Order of 2002 to the tribal areas and amending FATA’s Frontier Crimes Regulation, a draconian criminal code first enacted by the British in 1848.  Under the new orders,  political parties will be permitted to form and operate in the tribal areas, fielding candidates in FATA under their party banners for the first time. These reforms are designed to bring the tribal areas into the mainstream of Pakistani life and diminish the role of militants.

These developments were encouraged by a series of regional meetings in FATA that began in 2008 with support from NDI in partnership with the Shaheed Bhutto Foundation (SBF). More than 300 tribal representatives participated in roundtables that culminated in an agreement on reform priorities, including the extension of the Political Parties Order to FATA.  In January 2009, more than 100 of these tribal representatives presented their recommendations directly to President Zardari. 

A report, prepared by the foundation with support from NDI and published in early 2009 summarized the meetings’ findings and concluded that unrest in the tribal areas posed a threat to global security and underscored the urgency of establishing a democratic and constitutional system of governance there. The report also documented a broad consensus among tribal area leaders that development, democracy and rule of law were imperative to achieving peace and stability in the region.

Meetings in March and June of 2009 contributed to an announcement on Aug. 14, 2009, by President Zardari of a FATA reforms package, which, despite widespread support among FATA residents and a broad-cross section of political parties, had yet to be carried out until he signed the initial reforms last week.

Ongoing discussion through 2010 led to the creation of the Political Parties Joint Committee on FATA Reforms. Under that banner, nine mainstream political parties adopted a resolution in March calling on the president to implement the reforms announced in August 2009. A 10th party signed on later.

NDI programming is continuing.  The Institute is working with the joint committee as well as residents of the tribal areas, with SBF, in support of their efforts to promote the remaining reforms in the package.

NDI’s programs were funded initially by the State Department's Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and continue to be funded by the British High Commission.

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Published Aug. 15, 2011