The Baloch nationalists are debating among themselves whether or not to participate in the upcoming general elections. So, is Balochistan’s political landscape going to change if the nationalists return to parliament? All nationalists are not on the same page on this crucial question, nor are they all equally capable of normalising the situation in the province.
The moderate National Party (NP), which boasts about its middle class composition, has publicly acknowledged that it committed a “blunder” by boycotting the 2008 elections because they were immediately replaced by local rivals from the Balochistan National Party-Awami (BNP-Awami). In March 2009, the NP eventually returned to parliament by getting its leader, Hasil Bizenjo, elected as a senator with the help of the PPP, the PML-Q and some independent MPAs.
The Balochistan National Party (BNP) has still not decided to contest elections but its decision is very critical. The BNP, headed by former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal, is caught up in a dilemma for three reasons.
Firstly, Baloch armed groups oppose the idea of elections, integration and reconciliation with Islamabad. The BNP is not a contributor to the armed insurgency. Street politics is its strongest point and a decision to participate in the elections will directly pit it against the hardline Baloch groups. Secondly, the party fears its exiled president will be assassinated on his return to Pakistan, just like Habib Jalib, the party’s secretary general. Opposition to General (retd) Pervez Musharraf had landed Sardar Mengal in a Karachi jail for 20 months. Thirdly, the BNP blames the security establishment for creating anti-nationalist underground armed groups such as the Baloch Musla Defai Tanzeem to attack the anti-government nationalists. This group has killed several senior BNP leaders, including three members of its central committee. It seems impossible for the BNP to run a safe election campaign under constant fear of assault and disruption by armed groups allegedly affiliated with the intelligence agencies.
The BNP will probably participate in the elections only if powerful elements in the security apparatus assure them that no more attacks would be carried out on the party’s leaders and activists during the election campaign. Participation in the polls, nonetheless, does not guarantee nationalists’ landslide electoral victory. They are very likely to lose for the following reasons.
The nationalist parties have not exercised street politics for the past many years. The absence of key leaders such as Sardar Mengal of the BNP has totally disconnected the ordinary Baloch voter from their leaders. These parties also did not show any interest in the preparation of the voters’ lists. Their rural voters are not even listed nor do many of them possess computerised identity cards. Political parties normally require at least one year to prepare for the elections whereas the Baloch nationalists do not seem to have fully completed their homework yet.
Furthermore, there is simply no ‘sympathy vote’ in Baloch districts for the nationalists. The ‘kill and dump’ policies, for which intelligence agencies and the Frontier Corps are blamed, have increased support for armed groups among ordinary Balochs. They look at parliament and elections as a source of further strengthening the power of the state. The relatives of the killed or disappeared political activists support insurgent groups, instead of pro-parliament parties, in reaction to the killing of their loved ones.
Finally, Baloch tribal chiefs from the PPP, the PML-Q and the BNP-Awami have accumulated so much wealth from the official treasury that it is practically impossible for the nationalists to have the same amount of finances to run election campaigns. Access to official machinery further benefits the current legislators against the nationalists.
The elections will be a futile exercise if there is no change in the current composition of the Balochistan Assembly. The status quo did not change after the 2008 elections and a similar outcome this time will further block a ballot-driven solution for the Balochistan conflict. The government should make sure that intelligence agencies do not finance and influence the elections so that neutral results are achieved.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 31st, 2012.
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