The May 11 parliamentary election is being seen by both the Pakistan state and insurgents as a referendum on secessionism

If actions speak louder than words, then in Balochistan, the elections this weekend are being made out to be some kind of a referendum on the demand for independence by separatist groups. Encouraged by the participation of nationalist parties in this election after boycotting them in 2008, the federal and provincial governments are eager to package this as a vote against the separatist agenda though they are not saying this in as many words as there is no telling what the turnout will be.

Given the attention the separatists’ agenda has received across the world, the administration is particularly keen on putting out this message internationally as was evident from a visit of Quetta — usually a no-go area for foreign journalists — organised by the government for the foreign media stationed in Islamabad this past weekend. More so, because all the foreign election observers have chosen to stay away from the province due to the security situation.

The writing on the wall — literally, wall writing — even in the fortified provincial capital is “vote and die” but the civilian administration from the caretaker Chief Minister downwards maintains that the separatists have lost ground and this is a “make or break moment” for them. “This is why they are trying to disrupt the elections by bombing schools where polling stations are to be set up and lobbing grenades at candidates or party offices,” is an oft-heard refrain.

Violence has become such a norm in Balochistan that caretaker Chief Minister Ghous Bakhsh Barozai insists there is only a “situation” in the province, not an “insurgency” as many claim. In a curious twist of fate, the escalation of violence elsewhere in the country with relation to elections — particularly the attacks on rallies and candidates by religious right-wing organisations — has taken the edge off the attacks in Balochistan.

The disconnect

Though politicians across the board insist they are unable to campaign freely because of the attacks, the administration claims that security has been provided to most candidates, with some being assigned as many as 20 guards each. The government has also allowed candidates to have their own guards with the request that they carry only licensed weapons, said Chief Secretary Babar Yaqoob Fateh Muhammad.

The politicians, according to National Party’s Naimatullah Gichki, are not contesting an election but fighting a war. “We are fighting weapons with ideas,” he said, adding that the nationalist parties were being targeted by insurgents who consider them traitors to the cause of independent Balochistan.

The disconnect between the politicians and the administration is clear not just on the issue of security but also on the dynamics. The administration is particularly pleased that three main families, the Bugtis, the Marris and the Mengals, have been split down the middle. All three families have influential members contesting the elections and leading the insurgency. But, for Mr. Gichki, this is an ugly situation “where brother has turned against brother.”

And even though the state is flagging the return of Balochistan National Party (Mengal) leader and former Chief Minister Akhtar Mengal from self-exile as an achievement, his party maintains that they are being attacked by the twin cities, Islamabad-Rawalpindi, through “death squads” and insurgents. The BNP(M) senior vice-president, Jahan Zeb, was also non-committal on whether his party wanted to remain within the federation, arguing that this is a decision for the people of the province to make. “If the right of self-determination is acceptable by the Pakistani state for Kashmiri people, then why not for the Baloch people?”

What is described as “brother turning against brother” by some is in effect becoming a face-off for the nationalists and the separatists. The separatists see the nationalists as serving Islamabad-Pindi’s interests by contesting the elections. Describing it as a “controlled democracy,” their contention is that in 2008 the establishment orchestrated events to keep the nationalists out of the elections because Pindi (security establishment) thought they would influence Parliament. “Now they want nationalists to contest the elections in the hope of weakening the insurgency.”

Turnout

The separatists have given a call for a wheel jam strike from May 9 to 11 and turnout could be low in the Baloch strongholds, the Makran and Khuzdar divisions, and even parts of Quetta. That the situation is not as peaceful as the government would like to make it out to be is clear from the fact that only 284 of the 3,794 polling stations across the province are billed as “normal.” Of the remaining, 2,897 have been categorised “very sensitive” and 633 “sensitive.”

Given the size of the province, 44 per cent of Pakistan, the visible security presence has not instilled a sense of security in the people as violence is expected to escalate in the coming days, particularly on polling day. Even if people turn up to vote, not many expect things to change in the province as, according to one veteran journalist, there is no visible change in the attitude of the powers that be and the separatists who are divided among themselves.

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