The Pakistan authorities have lifted a longstanding ban on political parties operating in its lawless tribal areas, a move designed to reduce the influence of militants and extremists.
The seven areas, known formally as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), have always been semi-autonomous. Under a template inherited from the British colonial era, the Pashtun-dominated region has officially administered by government-appointed political agents ruling through the tribes.
Electors can vote for "independent" candidates who may be linked to one or other of the main parties, but analysts say the absence of the political mainstream has created a vacuum that Islamic hardliners have been able to exploit. Parts of the tribal areas have become strongholds for both the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. US officials still believe Osama bin Laden is hiding in the region.
At a ceremony to mark Pakistan's independence from Britain in 1947, President Asif Ali Zardari said: "We have allowed political activities in Fata from today. We don't think they should have a different identity. We think whoever has Pakistani citizenship, all Pakistani laws should apply. Pakistan's future lies in democracy."
The lifting of the ban is among reforms that the authorities have announced for the tribal areas, home to about four million people. Another key change has been an amendment to a draconian and long-detested set of laws that allowed the collective punishment of communities.
Presidential spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar said the changes would curtail the powers of arbitrary arrest. Of the change to allow political parties to operate, he said: "This breaks the monopoly of clerics to play politics from the pulpit to the exclusion of major secular political parties. It empowers the locals and weakens the extremists."
One political analyst said the changes were forward-reaching and would help to "integrate an area that has always been on the fringe" of the country. "If you are going to have integration you have to create political and social forces," he said. "A political process will give people a choice and it will help bring them into the mainstream."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies