Security officials inspect the site of the Mastung blast that occurred on July 13 | Courtesy Hafeezullah Sheerani
Security officials inspect the site of the Mastung blast that occurred on July 13 | Courtesy Hafeezullah Sheerani

A suicide blast in Mastung that killed around 140 people, including a provincial assembly candidate, Siraj Raisani, on July 13 has served as a tragic reminder that all is still not well in Balochistan. There have been some other minor instances of violence as well. In Kech district, grenades were thrown on the house of an election candidate. Shots were fired on the convoy of another candidate in the same district. A meeting inside the house of a third candidate, also in Kech, was attacked with gunfire.

These incidents suggest two obvious things: there are gaps in the security of both, the candidates and the electorate; and there is a certain degree of impunity enjoyed by the members and leaders of some groups that were banned but have been revived under new names. Some of them are running in elections; others are campaigning across the country for candidates they are backing. This means that religious hatred (as well as other violent ideologies) remain strong forces for sowing discord and creating violence — perhaps a little too strong to control.

Still, Balochistan is going to the polls with a law and order situation markedly better than it was in 2013. Hazara Shias were being mass murdered in Quetta back then and separatist violence was rampant in many southwestern and central parts of the province. Electioneering was impossible to carry out in a number of Baloch-dominated districts because of threats from non-state actors and large-scale deployment of security forces.

Districts of Kech, Panjgur, Turbat, Awaran, Kharan, Khuzdar and Kalat, that were hubs of Baloch separatist militancy a few years ago, are all calmer and more peaceful than they have been for over a decade. Political parties and candidates are freely carrying out their election activities in all these areas — holding corner meetings, displaying party flags, putting up banners and posters.

There are also expectations that voters will turn out in large numbers to vote on the day of polling due to improvement in law and order and also because of vigorous campaigning.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – often in competition with Pakhtun nationalists – has long been a major political force in Balochistan’s Pakhtun-dominated districts in the west and northwest of Quetta. Today the party stands divided into three factions — Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Sami (JUIS) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Nazaryati (JUIN). The last faction emerged just before the 2008 general elections. Its leader, Asmatullah, went on to defeat a JUIF stalwart, Muhammad Khan Sherani, in his home constituency of Zhob-cum-Sherani-cum-Killa Saifullah.

JUIF has dropped Muhammad Khan Sherani from its list of nominees for the upcoming election. He is reportedly so upset over the decision that he has told his followers not to vote for Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) – which includes JUIF – in NA-257 where the alliance has fielded Abdul Wasay who was leader of the opposition in the Balochistan Assembly between 2013 and 2018.

The divisions within JUIF are so sharp that its members are opposing the nominees of their own party in several places. A senior JUIF leader, Haji Behram Khan, for instance, is running as an independent against Salahuddin Ayyubi, an MMA ticket holder for a provincial assembly seat. This can seriously affect MMA’s chances of victory in Killa Abdullah’s NA-263 against PkMAP candidate Mahmood Khan Achakzai.

There are similar rifts within the Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), the other main contender for Pakhtun votes in the province. One of its senior leaders, Akram Shah, has fielded his son, Muzammil Shah, as an independent candidate against his party’s nominee, Abdur Rahim Ziaratwal, for a provincial assembly constituency, PB-6 Harnai-cum-Ziarat. This could damage the party’s prospects in NA-258 Loralai-cum-Musakhail-cum-Ziarat-cum-Dukki-cum-Harnai. Local pundits, in fact, do not consider PkMAP’s candidate, Sardar Habibur Rehman Dammar, as a serious contender and forecast a tough competition among Maulvi Amir Zaman of MMA, Sardar Israr Tareen of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Sardar Buland Khan Jogezai of PPP and Sardar Yaqoob Nasir of PMLN.

Two other parties are also struggling in Balochistan — Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) for having lost its former parliamentarians and main leaders to the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party; and National Party (NP) because of voter resentment over its failure to deliver social and economic development in Baloch areas.

Within this broad situation, the fight for Balochistan’s 16 seats is intense.

For NA-262 in Pishin district, PkMAP has retained its 2013 candidate Essa Roshan while MMA has nominated Kamaluddin. Roshan says he will benefit from his constituency having become a single district seat — detached from the nearby district of Ziarat. People in Ziarat vote more on the basis of religion than on the basis of Pakhtun nationalism, he says.

NA-264 in Quetta is a new constituency. Abdul Rehman Bazai of PkMAP, Asmatullah of MMA, Muhammad Raza of Hazara Democratic Party, Yousaf Khilji of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Amir Afzal Mandokhail of PMLN, Saifullah Khan of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Ali Mohammad Nasir of BAP are the main candidates in the constituency. The local electorate is divided along multiple lines of sect, ethnicity and ideology. This confusing mix makes it almost impossible to pick one leading contender here.

The voter here generally votes on a tribal basis — for the chief of their tribe or on his directions. Parties do not matter

In NA-265, a Baloch leader, Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani, is contesting elections as a nominee of Balochistan National Party (BNP) that is headed by former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal. The constituency has a predominantly Pakhtun population – about 75 per cent of the total – but Nawabzada Lashkari Raisani says that his party has Pakhtuns among its senior leaders and that everyone living in Quetta, regardless of ethnicity, faces the same problems of water shortage, gas and electricity outages, choked drains and dilapidated roads. One of his main rivals is PkMAP chairman, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who won from this area in 2013 but is being criticised by voters for remaining busy in Islamabad and not focusing on improving the living conditions of his constituents.

Another notable candidate in this constituency is JUIF’s former senator Hafiz Hamdullah Saboor who is an MMA nominee. PTI’s Qasim Khan Suri, who came second in the last election, seems to be lagging behind other candidates. Rahila Khan Durrani of PMLN and Rozi Khan Kakar of PPP are also in the run but are rather weak candidates.

In NA-266, JUIF has fielded its senior leader Hafiz Hussain Ahmed as a nominee of MMA. He was overlooked in his party’s nominations for two previous elections though he had won in 2002 from more or less the same areas that now form NA-266. He seems to be among the main contenders in the constituency though the redrawn boundaries make it uncertain to predict which party or candidate is really ahead of others.

NA-259 includes the restive areas of Dera Bugti and Kohlu districts where security forces are deployed in large numbers and the atmosphere for campaigning is still rather restricted. Dostain Khan Domki, the 2013 winner, looks set to retain the seat— barring some political development that changes the entire security situation and political balance in the constituency. He ran as an independent in the last election but is a BAP nominee now. One of his main challengers is Shahzain Bugti, a grandson of slain Baloch chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti. Another notable candidate is PPP’s Mir Baz Muhammad Khetran.

In NA-260, that comprises the districts of Naseerabad, Kachhi and Jhal Magsi, the competition is between Khalid Magsi (whose brother Zulfiqar Magsi has been both the governor and the chief minister of Balohistan in the past), and Yar Muhammad Rind (a Musharraf-era federal minister). The former is running as a BAP candidate; the latter is a PTI nominee.

NA-261 is spread over Sohbatpur and Jaffarabad districts. Chiefs of Jamali tribe have dominated the constituency since long and have always remained a part of either the provincial government or the federal government — or both. Mir Zafrullah Jamali (former prime minister), Taj Jamali (former chief minister) and Jan Muhammad Jamali (former provincial assembly speaker) have all been in power. Their main competitors are chiefs of the Khosa tribe which also has its own share of ministers, including a caretaker prime minister (Hazar Khan Khoso in 2013).

The voter here generally votes on a tribal basis — for the chief of their tribe or on his directions. Parties do not matter which explains why candidates can routinely switch parties without losing face among the electorate.

PTI’s Mir Jan Mohammad Khan Jamali, who is being backed by Mir Zafrullah Jamali, seems to be leading in the constituency with PPP’s Changez Jamali and BAP’s Zahoor Hussain Khosa trailing him closely.

In NA-267, that comprises Mastung, Kalat and Shaheed Sikandarabad districts, former chief minister Sanaullah Zehri is pitched against 20 other candidates. Another notable candidate here is PPP’s Ayatullah Durrani. The constituency is vast and thinly populated, with many contenders enjoying their respective pockets of support. The outcome here will be mainly decided by variations in voter turnout and the strength of tribal affiliations.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, chief of the Balochistan National Party, addresses the public in Quetta in April this year | PPI
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, chief of the Balochistan National Party, addresses the public in Quetta in April this year | PPI

NA-268, that consists of Chagai, Nushki and Kharan districts, will see a strong competition between Abdul Qadir Baloch of PMLN,  Hashim Notezai of BNP, Sardar Al-Haj Mohammad Umar Gorgage of PPP, Usman Badini of MMA and Sardar Fateh Muhammad Hasani who is running as an independent candidate. Each of these candidates has his own area of influence which makes the contest difficult to predict. Sardar Fateh Muhammad Hasani may have a slight edge because BAP’s nominee, Ejaz Raisani, has withdrawn from the contest in his favour.

Two former chief ministers, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and Sanaullah Zehri, are fighting for votes in NA-269 (Khuzdar district). This is home turf for both of them but Sardar Akhtar Mengal may have an edge because of the incumbency factor that may go against Sanaullah Zehri. He was heading a largely inept provincial administration till late last year. A notable candidate here is Shafiq Mengal who is alleged to have an association with anti-Shia sectarian groups and who, a few years ago, ran an anti-separatist hit squad in Khuzdar.

In two constituencies in Makran division – NA-271, NA-270 – voters are not generally mobilised by religious, sectarian, ethnic and tribal considerations. Most, if not all, of them rather vote on the basis of ideology. This explains why Makran division was the hub of Baloch nationalist politics between 1988 and 1993. Even though the glory days of Baloch nationalist politics have been long over, people still prefer to vote for candidates who have been associated with any of its many variants.

NA-270, spread over three districts of Panjgur, Washuk and Awaran, is quite sparsely populated. For the upcoming elections, BNP’s Mir Nazeer Ahmad, MMA’s Haji Attaullah, BAP’s Ahsanullah Reki, BNP-Awami’s Mohammad Hanif, PMLN’s Abdul Qadir Baloch (who was a federal minister in 2013-18) are in the run here. The constituency is too vast to throw up a single idea about the behaviour of voters in its various areas. Here, too, like in another constituency, area-wise difference between voter turnout will be a key determinant of the result.

In NA-271, comprising Kech district, writer and former bureaucrat Jan Mohammad Dashti, contesting on a BNP ticket, appears to be the leading candidate. He, however, is facing a tough competition from BNP-Awami’s ticket holder Ahsan Shah and BAP’s candidate Zubaida Jalal.

NA-272 is the last constituency in the country and also the longest. It starts from the northern outskirts of Karachi and goes all the way along the sea to the border with Iran. An intense three-way contest is underway here between BNP’s Sardar Akhtar Mengal, BAP’s Jam Kamal Khan (who was a federal minister till recently) and an independent candidate, Aslam Bhootani. The latter two candidates come from Lasbela district that forms the thickly populated northeastern part of the constituency. The contest is too close to call.

Maqbool Ahmed is a staffer at the Herald. Masood Ahmed has a master's in international relations from University of Karachi. Wazir Ali has a master's in international relations and in education.

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.