Thursday, January 17, 2008

Polls boycott in Balochistan By Senator Sanaullah Baloch

Polls boycott in Balochistan
By Sanaullah Baloch, Dawn, January 17, 2008

FOLLOWING the All Parties Democratic Movement’s (APDM) decision, Baloch and Pushtoon nationalist parties are boycotting the upcoming elections in Balochistan. No doubt, the majority of the moderate, literate and student groups in Balochistan are affiliated with the boycotting parties.

The core issue is not the election boycott, but the serious detachment of the nationalist parties from mainstream politics and the poll process. This is alarming.

The main reason for their boycott of the poll is the military operations unleashed by the federal government which led to killings, arrests and brutalities in Balochistan. Their boycott will certainly give the government an opportunity to re-install a pro-military religious government in the province to continue its unpopular policies.

The four major nationalist parties that are boycotting the polls are the Balochistan National Party (BNP), Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, National Party (NP) and Jamhoori Watan Party (JWP). These parties believe that the ‘boycott weapon’ might prove to be effective against dictatorship and autocracy.

They believe that the on-going military operation had worsened the situation in Balochistan which had taken a critical turn after the assassination of Baloch nationalist leaders Akbar Khan Bugti and Balach Marri. Also disturbing is the arrest of thousands of Baloch political activists, including Sardar Akhter Mengal, who are being tortured while others have disappeared.

This is not the first time that people in Balochistan are boycotting elections. In 1977 the political parties in the province had boycotted the polls under the umbrella of the PNA because of the military operation and the detention of a majority of Baloch leaders.

In the 1970 elections, when intelligence agencies were not involved in ‘election management’, the moderate Baloch nationalists won three out of four National Assembly seats and eight out of twenty in the provincial assembly. Although five members were elected as independent candidates the majority was supported by the nationalists. JUI was able to win only two seats in the 1970 elections in Balochistan. The Pakistan People’s Party did well in Punjab and Sindh but failed to win a single national and provincial seat in Balochistan.

In 1988, Baloch nationalists won the majority seats in Baloch populated constituencies. JUI and other parties managed to win seats from Pushtoon dominated areas of the province. Nawab Akbar Bugti was appointed chief minister. His unpleasant relations with Benazir Bhutto-led central government made it difficult to initiate a mega economic activity in the province to uplift the socio-economic condition of impoverished masses.

In 1990, once again Nawab Bugti’s JWP and other Baloch nationalists won a majority in the province but were prevented by the intelligence agencies from forming a government. In 1993, Baloch nationalists suffered heavy election losses due to election manipulations by the agencies and some internal fractions.

In 1997, BNP formed by veteran Baloch nationalist Sardar Attaullah Mengal secured quite a reasonable number of seats in the Balochistan Assembly and formed a coalition government in the province. But soon after the May 1998 nuclear tests and the BNP’s opposition to them led to the dismissal of Akhter Mengal’s government.

In the 2002 elections, General Musharraf successfully sidelined the Baloch nationalists and paved the way for pro-Taliban MMA elements. The systematic exclusion of Baloch moderate parties resulted in political violence and the intensification of the tensions between Islamabad and Balochistan. The 2008 elections will further alienate the moderate Baloch and Pakhtoon political forces from the centre.

With Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti eliminated and the BNP president Sardar Akhter Mengal incarcerated, any political engagement with the Baloch is difficult. Selfish religious elements will dominate Balochistan’s election scene and can be expected to form the future government in the province.

In its report of July 2007, Elections, Democracy and Stability in Pakistan, the International Crisis Group expressed concern about Islamabad’s support towards religious groups in Balochistan. It argued, “Now, as before, Musharraf has little choice but to support the Islamist parties to counter his moderate opposition. The pro-Taliban JUI’s help is essential to him, particularly in Balochistan, where the staunchly anti-military Baloch nationalist parties would likely win a free and fair poll. In the national parliament too, Musharraf would need the Islamists’ support to get renewed approval of his dual hats.

“If the Islamist parties gain five more years of power in Balochistan and NWFP, their militant allies – Pakistani, Afghan and transnational – will benefit, and the moderate parties, which still retain the support of the vast majority of the population, will lose.”

Baloch parties have also raised their concerns about the central and provincial caretaker governments and described them as biased and alleged that a ‘master plan’ had been prepared to rig the elections. It seems that the ‘brothers and sisters’ of caretaker ministers in the province will ‘win’ the elections. They claim that free and fair general elections are not possible when 23 out of 28 district nazims belong to the PML-Q, JUI-F and the pro-government BNP. There is visible evidence that close relatives of provincial caretaker cabinet members are contesting the polls from several constituencies and are likely to get elected thanks to the profound influence exercised by the provincial administration.

The APDM leaders are holding rallies to convince the masses as to how could free, fair and transparent elections take place in a country where political parties are prohibited from campaigning freely in an atmosphere of intimidation induced by the military and where top Baloch representatives have been persecuted on ethnic basis. They have been jailed for years without any transparent judicial trials. Political activists have been detained for months under the pretext of maintenance of public order.

Although, the government seems determined to hold elections in the province, the turn-out in the province will be low and the legitimacy of the polls will remain questionable. In future, any provincial government in this volatile province would not be in a position to function and deliver, as it will lack a mandate from the people. The nationalist parties enjoy very strong mass support and they can paralyse the provincial government when they want.

The writer is a member of the Senate.

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