As Pakistan gears up to take to the polls on Thursday, February 8, to elect representatives of the National Assembly, concerns are being raised about the credibility of the elections. In its restive province of Balochistan, largest in terms of land but least populated, the situation is grimmer: Violence has marred elections campaigns of several candidates, a boycott campaign is running in the background, and several sit-in protests have continued in cities like Turbat and Gwadar against enforced disappearances.
This year’s election season has been unusually muted across the country, with many calling it the most lackluster election campaign Pakistan has seen. Balochistan in particular is totally devoid of the traditional election fervor. With security threats looming, both candidates and voters are scared due to escalating violence in the province.
Over two dozen attacks have been carried out in Balochistan in the last week alone. Almost 80 percent of the province’s 5,028 polling stations have been declared “sensitive,” as per Balochistan’s caretaker home minister, Muhammad Zubair Jamali.
Caretaker Information Minister Jan Achakzai said that internet services will be suspended around sensitive polling stations in the province ahead of the February 8 poll. “There is a concern that terrorists may exploit social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and other similar channels for communication purposes,” he said in a tweet on X (formerly Twitter). In Turbat, mobile internet services remain suspended days before the poll.
On February 4, the government of Balochistan also imposed a ban on public meetings and electoral gatherings in Quetta due to security concerns.
“The security situation during the elections is not satisfactory in Balochistan, specifically in Makuran, as Balochistan is undergoing a resistance movement where groups like Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army believe that democracy and parliament is not the solution to the Balochistan issue,” sitting Senator Akram Dashti told The Diplomat. He survived an attack in Dasht Kuddan area last month, along with candidate for the provincial assembly, Lala Rasheed of the National Party.
Dashti added that while the insurgent groups do not want Baloch people to vote, the lack of participation gives the ground to security agencies to get their “chosen” or “favorite candidates” to win.
Bibi Zaratoon*, 32, has never cast a vote in her life and is boycotting the upcoming elections on Thursday. “If we vote or don’t vote, either way we are going to suffer – that’s the thought a majority of Baloch have right now,” Bibi, a lecturer in a government college in Turbat, told The Diplomat. “It is better that we do not vote in this case, because if we all boycott and not even a single vote is cast from Turbat then this issue can be raised: Why didn’t people vote? And without votes, no one will be elected but someone will be selected and this will be highlighted.”
She added that no one from her personal and work circle is thinking of voting. “These are all educated people and this isn’t an uninformed decision. We genuinely do not have any hopes from Baloch politicians.”
Ghulam Haider, a political worker from Turbat, seconded Bibi, adding that “there are next to no representatives of the people in Balochistan.” However, Haider said he will still vote “with a faint hope” that those elected this time will do a better job.
“Those boycotting elections have legitimate concerns,” said Kiyya Baloch, a freelance journalist who has extensively covered Balochistan. “Historically, a primary concern has been that legislators from Balochistan do not have the authority to make important economic, political, or security-related decisions for the province. Islamabad has always made important decisions for Balochistan.” He added that electables from Balochistan have failed to address one of the biggest challenges of the province, that of missing persons.
“Despite this, I believe that boycotting will inadvertently pave the way for criminals and non-political figures who would not only completely surrender to the establishment but won’t allow any space for democracy, politics, and criticism.”
Parliamentary Politics in Balochistan: A Bleak Future?
With the youth of Balochistan increasingly sidelining themselves from organized politics, due to a lack of hope and trust in the system, the elections “do not make sense,” commented Zafar Ullah, a researcher on Balochistan.
“Historically, elections in Balochistan haven’t been free and fair – this is the case in all of Pakistan, but the level of interference and political engineering has been higher in Balochistan,” he said. “If so much can happen openly in the center to dismantle the most popular political party in the country, then one can only imagine what must be happening in Balochistan – far scarier and not reported.”
However, Dashti, the senator, made the case for parliamentary politics in Balochistan by drawing comparisons between the Baloch communities in Pakistan and Iran. “Pakistan has either had outright dictatorship or a limping democracy while Iran presently has theocratic politics. One needs to assess how Baloch have benefited from these systems in both the countries,” Dashti said.
In Pakistan, he argued, the Baloch have their own province, representation in institutions, a separate budget, and freedom of expression as well as political awareness. He added that the political awareness in the youth, which has led to resistance in the form of social movements like the Baloch women’s Long March, has been made possible only through the participation of Baloch in the political process. “Only by creating different institutions in Balochistan for education and healthcare and so on has this progress come forth. Awareness in Baloch has come through education made possible by parliamentary politics,” Dashti told The Diplomat.
Embroiled in a decades-old insurgency and home to about 15 million of Pakistan’s estimated 240 million people, as per the 2023 census, Balochistan is also the country’s poorest province, despite being rich in natural resources; its oil, coal, gold, copper and gas reserves generate substantial revenue for the federal government. Deep-seated feelings of marginalization and a lack of equal share in the resources have furthered the separatist movement in the province. Thousands are missing in the province as the Pakistani military is alleged to abduct, kill, and dump those it considers to be sympathizers of insurgents.
Many have looked toward parliamentary politics as the way forward to resolving the Balochistan issue. However with time, as time passes the Baloch masses have become increasingly pessimistic of the parliamentary process.
“Balochistan is moving towards two extremes – there is the state with a militarized policy towards the political issue of Balochistan and then there are the insurgents who are gaining sympathy with the recent events because apparently all nationalist political parties have failed [at resolving the issues of the aggrieved province],” Ullah said.
“The narrative of insurgents against parliamentary politics is being proved right. In this situation, the space will become narrower for moderate political forces, making it harder for them to survive between these extremes.”
Commenting on why Baloch politicians have failed to resolve the issue of Balochistan when in parliament, Dashti said that every Baloch politician has made attempts, but the strength of Baloch nationalist politicians is limited: “Few Baloch politicians are in the National Assembly who advocate for Baloch rights; however this is no longer an issue of Balochistan but one that concerns all of Pakistan because without the province there is little investment potential in the country.” The issue of Balochistan escalated during Pervez Musharraf’s government, a non-democratic era, he argued – perhaps if a democratic government had been present at the time, the issue might have moved toward resolution.
Both the resistance movement and state are creating barriers to nationalist politicians in Balochistan, the senator commented. But the Baloch must be a part of the democratic process despite the challenges because if they vacate their space, it would go to those agents that do not support the rights of Baloch. “Parliamentary politics is a part of Baloch resistance,” Dashti insisted.
Elections 2024: A Step Forward for the Battered Province?
Like the common people of Balochistan, most analysts do not expect the elections to bring a significant change to Balochistan or even represent a step forward. “The establishment has sidelined genuine people with artificial leadership. Those in the parliament or provincial assembly are not the true representatives of the Balochistan people, so they remain indifferent to public issues,” commented Kiyya Baloch.
“There is a widespread belief in Balochistan that the system has failed them. That is why they have adopted alternative means. The recent mass movement in Balochistan is a manifestation of this failed system.”
Ullah explained, “The issues of Balochistan are political, but even in other smaller-level issues of the province the security forces have a lot of interference. So the political issue becomes a no-go area for politicians. There is militarization, securitization of Balochistan and the entire narrative is controlled by blaming India for interfering.
“And when such a narrative is built, it leaves no space for parliamentary politicians to perform. They have no space and stake and whoever tries to act, they are dealt with by the military establishment into silence so they compromise,” he concluded.
The issue of Balochistan can not be resolved until there is genuine political leadership that represents the masses, Ullah added. “The narrative of the state in Balochistan has to be desecuritized and decolonized, and the masses will need to be allowed to decide for themselves with a free and fair election. The grievances [and] political opinions of the masses will need to be heard, no matter how harsh they are but I don’t think the state is willing to do that. Only by listening to the people can a solution be found; otherwise I see no solution for the Balochistan conflict in the present system that has been created.”
Even before the election day, the results are known to many in Balochistan. People know who the powerful military’s candidates are, commented an analyst on the condition of anonymity. The favored party is “the Pakistan Peoples Party, as per the words of people and evidence on the ground,” the analyst claimed. “This party getting support from the deep state to bring many of its candidates to the provincial assembly is very alarming.”
The analyst continued: “I believe the election can be a step forward to build the trust of the Baloch if the military stops selection of criminals and those who are benefiting from the conflict… Nothing would change until the deep state changes its way of manipulating elections and allowing people to elect their representatives.”
*Some names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.