In-Depth Arena

Vote versus veto

Published Mar 27, 2015 01:46pm

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Scores of women, wrapped in big chadors and holding photos of young men, shout at the top of their voices in the main bazaar of Balochistan’s Turbat city on a hot March afternoon. They want Baloch nationalist parties to boycott the upcoming general election, and instead support the separatists waging a bloody war against security forces. The women include mothers, sisters and wives of the young Baloch men who have either been found dead or have gone missing over the last few years.

Besides public agitation, separatist militants sometimes also use violent means to stop the nationalist parties from taking part in the polls. Similarly, security forces and intelligence agencies want to restrict the activities of the nationalist parties. When it comes to dealing with Baloch nationalist parties, both the intelligence and security apparatuses and the separatists appear to be on the same wavelength, although for different reasons, a political analyst tells the Herald in Turbat. Both want the nationalists to stay away from the election, he says without wanting to be named due to security reasons.

The separatists, according to him, interpret the participation of the nationalist parties in the election as a means to strengthen Islamabad’s writ over Balochistan. This, he says, also weakens the case the separatists are trying to make before the international community; that the Baloch people want Balochistan’s secession from Pakistan. The separatists know well that once the popular Baloch nationalist parties reach the parliament and manage to either form or became a part of the provincial government, armed struggle for Balochistan’s independence will lose sympathies and dissipate with the passage of time, he explains.

On the other hand, the analyst says, the election of popular Baloch nationalist parties into power will weaken the security forces’ grip over the affairs of the province. He claims that security and intelligence agencies prefer working with non-nationalist Baloch politicians who, like ministers in the outgoing provincial cabinet, connive with security forces in perpetuating the status quo — in return, benefitting from the illegal trade of petroleum and other goods from and to Afghanistan and Iran. These ministers, he says, have never raised their voices against the killing and kidnapping of young Baloch men or of political activists. The security and intelligence agencies want to maintain this situation as it exists now even after the election and this could be possible only if parties such as the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNPM) and the National Party (NP) either boycott the polls or are not allowed to carry out proper electioneering, the analyst adds.

These two parties indeed have paid a high price for sticking to electoral, democratic politics in the face of twin threats: The scores of party workers and leaders killed in the last few years and the steadily shrinking political space for the middle class from Makran, Kalat and Quetta divisions in the largely tribal and feudal society of Balochistan.

In the province, the situation on the ground is hardly helpful for these parties. Major cities in the Makran division are chock-a-bloc with graffiti appealing the masses not to cast their vote and threatening candidates that they could be killed for taking part in the poll process. A huge swathe of south-western Balochistan, comprising 14 predominantly Baloch districts of the province, don’t even get television coverage of the polling exercise going on elsewhere in the country. A cable operator in Gwadar city, who does not want to make his identity public due to security concerns, tells the Herald how, in early March, separatists sent written messages to all cable operators in the area instructing them to stop relaying Pakistani news channels. Some who ignored the directive saw their houses attacked, he says.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the cheif of the Balochistan National Party – Mengal, faces pressure from Baloch separatists to boycott the 2013 election
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the cheif of the Balochistan National Party – Mengal, faces pressure from Baloch separatists to boycott the 2013 election

A week after the operators had blocked Pakistani news channels, the members of a hitherto unknown group, Gwadar Youth Force, approached them and demanded that they also block all Indian entertainment channels and stop airing Indian films on cable networks. Again, those who did not heed the demands of the group faced attacks on their houses, the cable operator says. Everyone knows that the security and intelligence agencies are behind organisations such as Gwadar Youth Force, he adds. In some areas, journalists associated with television channels, and even those working for local and national newspapers, have been told both by security agencies and separatists not to report negatively about their activities. Many news correspondents in Makran, who until recently would happily discuss the political and security situation in Balochistan with visiting reporters from Karachi or Islamabad, now avoid even seeing reporters.

Yet, the Baloch nationalist parties are determined to contest the upcoming election, unlike in 2008, when they decided to sit out the election process in protest of the military operation being carried out in parts of Balochistan. On March 26, two days after returning from self-exile in Dubai, Akhtar Mengal, the BNPM president, headed a long meeting of his party’s main leadership in Karachi. Mengal told the media, after the meeting, that his party had decided to contest the coming polls. He said BNPM will use the election as a means to highlight “apprehensions about the rights of the Baloch people”.

Ghafoor Baloch, a senior nationalist leader, says that nationalist parties have held lenghty sessions to weigh the pros and cons of both participating in the election and boycotting it. During these discussions, he says, the parties analysed threats from militants who call themselves the “Sarmachars” – a Balochi word for freedom fighters – and who have particularly targeted Makran division and its nearby districts of Khuzdar and Awaran. The participants of these meetings have also discussed why violence against political activities and security forces is low in districts where the sardari or tribal system is very strong. According to him, both separatist militants and the security forces are targeting political workers of left-leaning, liberal political forces. Other political parties have also announced that they are contesting in the election and running their election campaigns but their workers are neither being targeted by militants nor by security and intelligence apparatuses, Baloch claims. In such a situation, he says, poll boycott is a relatively easy and safe option for the nationalist parties. But he raises a question: “Will poll participation make the situation worse for liberal Baloch nationalist parties than what they have faced during the last five years?” If the answer is no, he says, then why not contest the election and at least make an effort to change the situation without bothering much about the results and the future?”

A senior BNPM leader confirms this when he tells the Herald that his party has decided to participate in the election despite having reservations about the establishment’s meddling in the political affairs of the province, as well as opposition from Baloch militant groups. The leaders of both BNPM and NP also say that they are holding talks with each other as well as with other political parties for possible election alliances and seat adjustment. But they also point out that fear of violence is holding them back from launching their mass contact activities in the run-up to the election to convince the electorate that parliamentary democracy is the best way to promote the Baloch cause.

Muhammad Yousuf, a senior journalist and the president of Gwadar Press Club, believes that threats of violence will force electioneering in the province to remain a low key affair, keeping public participation and voter turnout poor. In urban areas, he says, candidates may bring the voters out but it will be extremely difficult in rural areas where distance between the villages and polling stations is normally 20 to 30 kilometres. In the presence of the clear and imminent danger of militant attacks, there is little chance that voters will be willing to risk their lives to reach polling stations, covering such long distances. This, Yousuf says, may leave a serious question mark over the legitimacy of the next election which will then be seen as unreflective of the will of the people.

Away from Baloch nationalist hub in Makran division, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), is all set to launch its election campaign, in contrast to its decision in 2008 to boycott the polls. Based in the north of Balochistan and popular among the mainly Pashtun residents of the province, the party is wasting no time in debating the costs and benefits of its decision against participation in the previous election and is, instead, focusing its energies on the coming election, says its provincial president, Usman Kakar. Expecting that the Baloch nationalist parties will also participate fully in the May election, he says: “We are looking forward to making seat adjustments with liberal and progressive forces in both provincial and national elections.” Without naming any parties or groups that PkMAP would like to ally itself with before or after the election, Kakar says that during the formation of the next government his party will prefer joining hands with progressive and liberal forces “instead of those who support the armed forces’ role in politics in one way or the other”.