The commitment made by all political parties of Balochistan to participate in the upcoming elections is quite refreshing. More so, the Chief Election Commissioner’s visit to Quetta is encouraging, since he has taken various steps to address some of the issues facing prospective candidates. The caretaker Chief Minister of Balochistan has also vowed to make an all-out effort to ensure peaceful environment for the elections.
Pakistan currently faces extraordinary challenges of law and order. Despite this, the decision to proceed with the elections is a bold one. Therefore, the federal and provincial governments need to ensure that all political parties and their voters feel safe enough to participate in them.
With a caretaker Prime Minister from Balochistan overseeing the political transition at the national level, and Baloch political leaders gearing up to take part in the polls, one can safely assume that the restive province is on its way to join the national mainstream.
In 2008, major political parties in the province had decided to boycott the elections. However, the nationalist parties have finally realised that it has done no good to the Baloch people. Now they have made a prudent choice to do the politics of inclusiveness. Nevertheless, the subversive efforts by the marginalised separatist entities are likely to continue.
On March 12, 2013, for instance, the armed activists of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) gunned down Mohammad Ziaullah, the District Election Commissioner of Quetta; reportedly, BLA claimed the responsibility for it. “We will not let Pakistan hold elections in Balochistan,” warned its spokesperson. Two other militant entities, Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Baloch Republican Army (BRA), have also threatened to disrupt the political process. Keeping this in view, the political parties fear deadly attacks on their election rallies, candidates and voters. This is why Balochistan specifically remains an area of primary interest for local and international observers of the 2013 elections.
Having said that, the Supreme Court, as well as the federal and provincial governments, have taken serious note of the aggravated law and order situation in Balochistan, with special reference to the missing persons. The Judicial Commission, constituted last week for their recovery, has submitted its report in the apex court.
The Commission claims that it has traced 378 missing persons’ cases, while 633 are still pending. In Balochistan, 59 cases were concluded, while 48 are in process. It has, indeed, done a commendable job by demystifying the missing persons’ issue, especially in the context of Balochistan. It will be in the fitness of things if it handles all Balochistan related cases on priority basis and tries to finalise them well before the election.
Additionally, Sardar Akhtar Mengal, President of Balochistan National Party (BNP), has recently opined that discontent among the Baloch populace was caused due to the illegal arrest, torture and murder of political leaders for which Pakistan’s security forces are to be blamed. “If these extra-judicial killings do not stop,” he warned, “elections would be too difficult to hold.”
Mengal is rightly concerned that there has been no improvement in the Balochistan situation as bloodshed continues. Yet, he has reaffirmed that his party believes in democracy. Mengal’s return from self-exile and participation in the elections is certainly of much significance with regard to jumpstarting the political process in Balochistan. However, reasons for the prevailing situation go far beyond his perspective.
Balochistan has been the hub of multidimensional, ethno-sectarian strife for the last one decade or so. The vacuum created by the government’s poor capability to manage the prevailing unrest in the province has facilitated the undemocractic forces to gain a reasonable regulatory control over the dynamics of the ongoing socio-political divergence.
Chilling waves of violence unleashed by sectarian groups, ethnic nationalists, armed wings of political parties and death squads believed to be funded by the foreign state and non-state actors are just some of the reasons, which have plunged Balochistan to its current sorry state of affairs.
Further, it is a multiethnic province with almost equal Baloch and Pashtun population, in addition to other minority groups. Its population is eight million, out of which the Baloch and Brahvis constitution four million, the Pathans 3.5 million and the settlers 0.5 million. Within the Baloch dominated areas, the Sindhi-Baloch community residing in Sibi and Jacobabad areas are peaceful. Likewise, Pashtuns do not harbour separatist tendencies; the Hazara Shias are strong proponents of Pakistan’s territorial integrity; and a majority that lives along the Makran Coast are friendly people. Meanwhile, the separatist elements are weak, divided and marred by inter- and intra-tribe rivalries that has led to severe differences between BLA and UBA, which is likely to grow in the days to come.
Add to this, Balochistan does not belong to the Baloch population alone. Baloch being more volatile and outspoken have been able to project their victimhood and attract foreign sponsors. The runaway scions of three tribal chieftains are trying to stir up separatist tendencies. This misguided youth hardly has any standing among the majority of Baloch, who are loyal to Pakistan. The residents of other ethnic origins are playing an important role towards the restoration of stability in the province; however, they need to assert themselves politically so that its true demographic face is duly represented and acknowledged.
After ending the military operation in 2008, the provincial government failed to fill the void; unfortunately, they chose not to take a decisive stance against the troublemakers, rather preferred a strategy of appeasement. Under these circumstances, the credit goes to the national tier of political and military leadership for adopting a appropriate strategy to control the situation and, indeed, reversing it.
The successful conduct of elections in Balochistan will be a watershed. However, the political gains emanating from a credible electoral process need to be handled carefully. The first priority should be to take visible steps and launch a protracted campaign to dispel the widespread perception of deprivation and exploitation.
The Baloch people, for example, believe that they do not benefit from their natural resources such as gas, gold and copper, nor are they given any representation in the country’s civil, armed and foreign services. A comprehensive compensatory and rehabilitation package should follow, focused at making the citizens of Balochistan feel at home. This would need concerted plan of action to bridge the gap between perceptions and reality.