ISLAMABAD - Perhaps for the first in the history of the country, the Election Commission of Pakistan Thursday postponed the Senate election for Federally Administer Tribal Areas (Fata) for an indefinite period after the government issued a controversial order changing the voting pattern for Fata.

The major opposition parties - PPP and PTI - strongly protested over the way the order was issued and said that the government had made the Senate election controversial. PPP said that the postponement of Fata elections could delay the process of election of Senate chairman and deputy chairman scheduled for March 12.

Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) officially announced that in the wake of the newly issued order, it has postponed the election for Fata and sought Attorney General of Pakistan’s advice over the issue.

As the polling of the Senate election to elect four senators of Fata started at the Parliament House at 9am, Fata MNA Shahabuddin Khan of PML-N was the first one who came to vote but the returning officer of Fata polling station established at Committee Room No. 2 stopped the polling process. The member was asked to wait for the decision of the ECP.

Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Justice (r) Sardar Raza Khan held a special meeting in the ECP to discuss the presidential order. According to ECP sources, the meeting said that the order was ambiguous in prescribing the new method to hold elections for Fata and sought advice of the law ministry for clarification. It is likely that law ministry would clear ambiguities in the order through an SRO. Fata’s 11 members of the National Assembly are the Electoral College for its Senate elections.

Meanwhile, the FATA’ six independent MNAs out of 11 including G G Jamal, Shah Jee Gul Afridi, Nasir Khan, Bilal ur Rehman, Sajid Tori and Bismillah Khan challenged the presidential order in Islamabad High Court. All also came in the parliament to vote through old method but ECP staff barred them from voting. The three MNAs of PML-N also came to vote through a new method but they were also barred. The other three lawmakers including one of PTI did not turn up for voting.

According to parliamentary sources, the government issued the order as six independent MNAs from Fata had formed their own group to elected four Senators with total 24 votes through old voting procedure. With this, the other five MNAs of Fata had become irrelevant and the ruling party would not have been able to win any seat from there. The government changed the election method to win at least one seat from Fata and make its position strong for the slot of chairman and deputy chairman of the Senate. PPP was in contact with the four Senate candidates whom the group of six MNAs was going to elect.

President Mamnoon Hussain on Wednesday night issued an order (to prescribe the manner in which members of the Senate for Fata shall be elected), withdrawing the 2002 Chief Executive Order - issued by then chief executive Pervez Musharraf - which gave each Fata MNA four votes in Senate elections. The new presidential order gives each Fata MNA the right of one vote in Senate elections. The order was issued on the basis of a summary moved by the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON).

The independent MNAs from Fata staged protest outside parliament house. “We refuse this ordinance that was issued overnight unlawfully... this is a joke with the people of Fata,” said PPP leader from Fata, Syed Akhunzada Chattan, while speaking to media outside the parliament house.

Leader of the Opposition in NA Syed Khurshid while talking to reporters outside the parliament house strongly protested the way the order was issued. “I am seeing this strange Senate elections of my life as the government itself has made this election controversial... it is strange that PM was on a foreign tour on the occasion of this important event,” he said, adding that PM was part of the parliament and his absence was regretful.

Khurshid supported the order but protested over the timing of its issuance. “There is no reason to issue order in the darkness of night and the government should have issued it before the announcement of Senate election schedule,” he said. He said that PPP had formed strategy to contest chairman and deputy chairman election.

PTI Central Information Secretary Dr Shireen Mazari termed the government step as unconstitutional, undemocratic and unparliamentary. But Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafiq told reporters outside parliament house that the order was issued under the law and constitution.

“The government did not take any unconstitutional measure,” he said but admitted that its timing was not appropriate. He said that the pervious order about voting procedure for Fata Senate election was issued during the tenure of General (r) Pervez Musharraf and the new order was issued to check horse-trading in Senate elections.