Victory for a religious party in Balochistan

Pakistan’s mainstream media completely ignored an important by-election on July 15th in NA-260

Shezad Baloch July 25, 2017
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman. PHOTO: AFP

Distracted by the hype over the Panama Papers, Pakistan’s mainstream media completely ignored an important by-election on July 15th in NA-260, Balochistan’s largest constituency, comprising the districts of Quetta, Naushki and Chagai. While Balochistan has never been a priority for mainstream media nor the federal government, the total lack of coverage was not expected.

Media coverage and analysis play a crucial role in shaping public opinion. In the run-up to an election it assumes an even greater importance as a means of informing the electorate about the roster of candidates running for office and the agendas they espouse. In this election cycle, however, the mainstream media completely failed the electorate, providing neither candidate information nor a discussion of the issues facing the province.

The election resulted in a win by 44,610 votes for the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F). The Balochistan National Party (BNP) came in second with 37,481 votes, while the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), winners in 2013, ended up in third place with 19,840 votes, losing by more than 24,770 votes. The PkMAP’s poor showing came as no surprise, given that it does not have a large vote bank in the constituency. In 2002, victory went to the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal’s Hafiz Hussain Ahmed and in 2008 to the PPP’s Sardar Umar Gorage. The PkMAP’s win in 2013, when the now deceased Abdul Rahim Mandokhail was the party candidate, was considered little short of a miracle.

In an unusual twist this time around, not a single nationalist party claimed that the elections were rigged. They did, however, complain that the JUI-F used mosques and religious seminaries for campaigning purposes and establishment backed religious party’s candidate. According to the Balochistan’s election commissioner, turnout for the election was 29%, a fairly typical turnout in over 90% of the province. Around 460,202 people are registered to vote in the Quetta-Naushki-Chagai constituency, yet only 133,477 of them turned up at polling stations to vote. Another 3,788 voters were turned away for various reasons. From these numbers it is clear that low voter turnout is a serious issue and needs to be addressed. As things stand, while the winning candidate is chosen by the majority of those who cast ballots, that number represents a minority of those eligible to vote. In Balochistan, the support of a mere 15% of the population can get you elected to the legislative assembly. There are several reasons for this, among them are the poor overall law and order situation, fear, a lack of infrastructure and, most importantly, a lack of awareness among eligible voters about the importance of their vote.

As expected, the coalition partners the PML-N, the NAP and the PkMAP in the Balochistan government refused to support one another. Instead the National Party (NP), led by Hasil Bizenjo, allied itself with the JUI-F, the opposition party in the Balochistan Assembly, while the PML-N quietly put its support behind the PkMAP. The BNP, led by Akhtar Mengal, won the support of the Awami National Party and the Hazara Democratic Party.

It is not uncommon in Balochistan for political parties, be it religious, secular or nationalist, to set aside partisan ideologies and manifestos for the duration of the election campaign and throw their support behind whichever political or religious party or organisation can best help them to become a part of the government. It is said that politics makes strange bedfellows. That was certainly the case in these elections. Who, after all, would have thought that the JUI-F would gain support, no matter how short-lived, of the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), creating the unlikely alliance of the secular NP, the ASWJ and the JUI-F?

The embarrassingly poor showing by the PkMAP is evidence that the party is paying dearly for its failure to deliver on the promises of the last general election. Especially in the areas of Quetta and Kuchlak, many people chose to transfer their vote from the PkMAP to the JUI-F.

The BNP has criticised the JUI-F for using mosques and religious seminaries as campaign venues. They argue that this gave the JUI-F an advantage over its nationalist and secular opponents, the number of mosques and seminaries at the JUI-F’s disposal being far greater than the schools, colleges and universities the non-religious parties had to use.

Since this is the third time the JUI-F candidate has been elected by the same constituency, it makes little sense to continue to blame the government for doing what governments do and making use of the mechanisms available to them to remain in power. Expecting the election commission to play its role in maintaining the ethical code of conduct is just a dream. I have never seen an effective election commission in my entire life, even today it fails to use the modern technology.

It is up to each political party, be it the BNP, the NP or any other, to wage an effective campaign and convince voters, if they are really serious about replacing the conservative and religious forces standing in the way of their electoral success. Granted there are challenges and hurdles to be overcome, but playing the blame game is not the solution.

In Balochistan, it is a relatively easy thing for a religious party to gain support of the masses. After all, mosques and religious seminaries are arguably the most accessible venues for most people. But it would not be fair to lay the blame for radicalisation of the populace entirely at the feet of religious parties. Nationalist parties and past governments have never really understood the importance of raising awareness and mobilising the electorate in support of their candidacy in the 21st century. More than ever in this day and age, people need to be convinced that elections are important; it is their civic duty to participate and their vote really counts. It is the only way to get your voice heard no matter how difficult it is.

This latest election clearly demonstrates, whether we like it or not, that religion and politics remain tightly intertwined in Balochistan. This situation is unlikely to change any time soon. Indeed, it would appear that religious parties are increasing in power and influence, and this seems to be the case regardless of the individuals standing for office in any given election.

Another factor influencing the outcome of elections is the existence of religious seminaries in the province that receive funding not only from the government but also from rich, Sunni-majority countries engaged in proxy wars in the region. All across Balochistan you are more likely to come across a mosque or a religious seminary than a school. Students at these seminaries are paid about Rs3,000 monthly, on top of meals and board, to attend. One such seminary in Quetta is even owned by a senior leader of the JUI-F, Hafiz Hussain Ahmed. Could the connection between religion and politics be any more blatant?

I am not a cynic, but I have to admit that when it comes to politics in Balochistan, hope is a sentiment increasingly hard to justify.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2017.

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