In a televised address to the nation on Sunday, Pakistan’s outgoing Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf congratulated his fellow citizens for the “historic” completion of five years of uninterrupted democracy. While the Pakistanis know that they will be voting in mid-May to elect a new government, they were still undecided who would head the caretaker administration for the next ninety days at the time of the Prime Minister’s speech.
According to Pakistan’s constitution, which was written in 1973 and amended 20 times since then, leaders from the government and the opposition should reach a consensus to form an acceptable neutral interim government ahead of the next elections. The failure of the government and the opposition to agree upon one caretaker prime minister reflects the broader problems of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy.
While the outgoing members of the parliament posed for a historic group photograph in Islamabad, authorities in the country’s largest province of Balochistan continued to debate among themselves whether or not they would even be able to hold peaceful elections. On March 12, 2013, armed activists of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a sub-nationalist separatist group, gunned down Muhammad Ziaullah Qasimi, the District Commissioner of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in Quetta, Balochistan’s capital. The BLA was not apologetic and unambiguous about the assault.
“We will not let Pakistan hold elections in Balochistan,” warned the BLA’s spokesperson.
The Express Tribune reported on February 9, 2013 that two more armed Baloch groups, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) had also threatened to disrupt the elections.
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), told BBC Urdu that discontent among the Baloch was caused by unabated illegal arrest, torture and murder of the political leaders for which Pakistan’s security forces are blamed. If these extra-judicial killings do not stop, he warned, elections would be too difficult to hold.
Pakistan currently faces extraordinary challenges of law and order. The chilling wave of violence employed by the Taliban, sectarian groups, ethnic nationalists, armed wings of political parties and death squads believed to be linked with the Pakistani secret services are coercing various political parties to limit their election campaigns to avoid deadly assaults.
The March 12 assassination of the prominent election officer, for instance, has compelled politicians to reconsider their campaign strategies. Political parties fear deadly attacks on their election rallies, candidates and voters. This year’s security threats are alarming across Pakistan, particularly in volatile Balochistan, which remains the focus of political observers’ interest.
Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest of four provinces, has remained the center of an ethnic nationalist insurgency against the central government for nearly one decade. Balochistan’s ethnic majority, the Balochs, who constitute only 5% of the country’s total population, complain against discrimination by the federal government dominated by the ethnic Punjabis.
According to Asma Jhangir, a former president of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association, the Baloch people believe the 2008 elections meant nothing for them because the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies, not the civilian government, control their province. The Balochs do not benefit from their own mineral wealth, such as gas, gold and copper, nor are they provided any representation in the country’s civil, armed and foreign services. Groups like the BLA, insist that Pakistan engineers what they describe as “shame elections” in order to divert attention from the actual Baloch demand for statehood.
In 2008, major political parties in Balochistan boycotted the general elections because they opposed General Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator, as Pakistan’s president. Hence, the boycotted elections brought into power one such underrepresented, unpopular and corrupt government in Balochistan that even the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the center was forced to dismiss it on January 14, 2013 although the PPP also headed the Balochistan government.
Sections of the Pakistani ruling establishment are believed to be covertly communicating with enraged but moderate Baloch nationalist parties in order to persuade them to end their isolation and participate in the next general elections. Moderate nationalists are those who seek maximum internal autonomy for Balochistan while remaining a part of Pakistan.
If the Baloch nationalist parties participate in the elections, they can at least assist Islamabad with a process of reconciliation with some sections of the Baloch nationalists. However, the likelihood of peaceful elections is in jeopardy considering the prevalence of widespread violence across Balochistan.
The central government in Islamabad has done too little to build the Baloch confidence. Secret services, which have been blamed for colluding with extremist Sunni groups to kill Shias Muslims and sponsoring underground death squads to eliminate Baloch political activists, have not abandoned their counterproductive tactics which have significantly undermined democracy in Pakistan.
Pakistan should recover all the disappeared political activists and punish civil and military officers responsible for widespread human rights abuses in Balochistan in order to encourage the nationalists to participate in the elections. In addition, the government has to establish peace to the extent that all political parties and their voters feel safe enough to participate in the elections. If the elections fail again to improve the relations between Pakistan and its largest province, Islamabad should prepare for more internal instability and chaos in the future.
Malik Siraj Akbar, based in Washington DC, is editor-in-chief of The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English language newspaper. He was formerly a 2010-11 Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow at Arizona State University and a 2012 Regan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington DC. Akbar is a member of the National Press Club and a regular blogger for the Huffington Post.