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Balochistan braces for ballot


By Imtiaz Gul

 The Friday Times, April 12, 2013


Quetta, the capital of the violence-prone Balochistan province is humming with some political activity. Major political parties are positioning themselves for the showdown on May 11, with each party attempting woo others for direct or indirect support.

Shabaz Sharif, the PML-N go-getter, caused some ripples with his visit to Quetta on April 10 and warmed up a few hearts. He met practically with everybody that matters, including the unsure Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the confident Mahmood Achakzai, Talal Bugti and many others. Shahbaz indicated to everyone that his party intends to field 35 candidates for provincial assembly seats, and up to nine for the National Assembly. He also pleaded with everyone to forge a unity - as much as possible - which could be the key to extricate Balochistan from violence. 

We should talk to one another with an open heart and listen to mutual grievances, Shahbaz reportedly said. An all-out support from mainstream political parties to the Baloch people is the need of the hour, he said. 

But unity appears to be a rare commodity among Balochistan's ethnic Baloch and Pashtun leaders. Almost all pro-federation nationalists share the same narratives on their province's problems. Their recipes, too, hardly differ. But, unfortunately, they hardly agree on how to pursue their objectives. Late Nawab Bugti's family is divided. So is Nawab Khair Bux Marri's. Mengals are not different either. The 1997-98 chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal sounds extremely bitter about what he sees as games of the establishment, which he believes is promoting and facilitating its own favourite people and groups in certain areas. He likens the current situation with "martial law" and doesn't even rule out a boycott of the elections as a last option.

"Death squads of intelligence agencies are being turned into political players to the disadvantage of legitimate political forces," said Akhtar Mengal, singling out Difa-e-Balochistan, led by his real brother Shafiq Mengal as one of those favourites. The GHQ and the ISI must withdraw all those people who have been used as helping hands by the intelligence forces against four known separatist groups.

"If things don't change I don't even rule out boycotting the election," Akhtar Mengal told me at his Quetta residence. After his brief appearance before the court in October last year, Mengal returned to Pakistan from Dubai after several years of self-exile, and now finds himself in political wilderness.

The extremely bitter politician says his party is hamstrung by some bitter ground realities. "I cannot campaign and offer a manifesto that my voters want," Akhtar said while talking about the missing persons or the target-killings that are hounding his party leaders and activists. "People are asking about their missing children, about safety in the run-up to the election, and the threats they are all receiving. Unless the intelligence agencies stop playing favourites to deny us success, don't see any hope for a democratic Balochistan." For this, says Akhtar Mengal, mainstream political parties hold the key.

"If the PPP and the PML-N want to extricate Balochistan from the clutches of the security establishment, they shall have to jointly raise their voice. Why not block the way of intelligence agencies ahead of elections rather than bemoaning their role afterwards?" Mengal said, insisting that bigger national parties have not demonstrated as much consensus for the cause of Balochistan as they have for the issues of the country.

Mengal sees black all over and holds the establishment responsible for the decision by the European Union elections observers' mission to stay away from Balochistan. Akhtar Mengal also reiterated what Mir Hasil Bizenjo, central leader of the National Party (NP), has been demanding for long - disarm and demobilize all those individuals and groups who have been acting as the counter-measure to the separatist groups, with the support of intelligence agencies.

But discussions with Dr Malik, Hasil Bizenjo, Governor Zulfiqar Magsi, and Mahmood Achakzai, the brash Pasthun nationalist heading the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP), entail a picture that is clearly different from the alarmist view of Akhtar Mengal.

Most of these leaders are quite fearful of the specter of violence, particularly by anti-federation and anti-democracy forces such as Baloch Liberation Front (BLF, led by Dr Allah Nazar), Baloch Liberation Army (BLA, led by Harbiyar Marri), Baloch Republican Army (BRA, led by Brahamdagh Bugti, grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti), Lashkare Balochistan (LB, led by Jawaid Mengal, son of Sardar Attaullah Mengal), and Baloch Liberation United Front (BLUF). Yet, they also exude a certain hope and confidence about the future.

"It will be unrealistic to rule out election day violence but that must not, and we will not let it, derail the democratic process," Dr Malik Baloch told me. 

Most politicians dismiss Akhtar Mengal's emotionally charged rhetoric as fear of imminent defeat at the hands of his own brother. "Having been away for so long, Akhtar lost a bit of his role in domestic politics and he may not be able to win even from his ancestral constituency," said a political activist. That is why he may opt out of the contest as a face-saving move, said the activist.

Most politicians, Baloch and Pashtuns alike, conceded that the security establishment had taken the back seat in the current scenario. But they also sounded bitter about the past misdeeds of the establishment as well as President Asif Ali Zardari.

"By handpicking Nawab Aslam Raisani, Zardari only perpetuated what the establishment had imposed on Balochistan," Achakzai said during a chat. For Achakzai, as well as the National Party leaders, the challenge ahead lies in how the new government will undo the legacy of the past five years. 

Mitigating the cumulative impact of five years of plunder and zero-governance will be a huge task, said Mir Hasil Bizenjo. For this, Bizenjo and Dr Baloch tried to persuade Akhtar Mengal into some electoral arrangement to ensure maximum nationalist gains in the elections but Mengal allegedly snubbed most such moves.

The expression of interest that Shahbaz Sharif sounded out may provide some adrenaline to Mengal's BNP, observes say, but that may not be enough for him to be counted on for a bigger provincial role.

Most Baloch and Pashtun parties, however, seem a little apprehensive about the religio-political forces such as JUI-F, in the northern, Pashtun-dominated districts.

"If the establishment takes back its support for the mullahs, we can easily sort them out," said a PKMPAP activist, resonating allegations that intelligence agencies use the JUI-F for peace management in areas close to the Afghan border. Ironically, the JUI-F leaders hold the same view of PKMAP cadres; they allege that some leaders and activists of the PKMAP cooperate with security agencies to the disadvantage of JUI-F.

These parties keep trading such allegations but the reality of Balochistan today is clear - reliance on, and interference of the security forces may serve more as a disadvantage than as a guarantee for success. Adverse social conditions and relentless pressure by the Supreme Court has pushed the security apparatus on the defensive, particularly the Military Intelligence that used to control Sindh and Balochistan under Gen Musharraf. While local FC and the MI cadres may try to influence the electoral process here or there, it will not be easy to ensure smooth sailing for their favourites.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk