As campaigning for Pakistan’s July 25 election swings into high gear, a familiar game is being repeated in the country’s restive southwestern province of Balochistan.
Opposition politicians and analysts say a new political party in the region is attempting to prevent Baluch ethno-nationalists from winning the polls.
The Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), Urdu for the Balochistan People's Party, aims to form the provincial administration in Pakistan’s least populated but largest province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan and is home to the country’s Arabian Sea coast.
Saeed Sarbazi, a Karachi-based journalist, says BAP is part of the Pakistani military establishment’s plan to confront Baluch ethno-nationalist groups.
He says that while anemic civilian administrations in the province have failed to stop harsh crackdowns and military operations against Baluch factions seeking autonomy or independence during the past 15 years, the major motive behind BAP’s emergence this year seems to be to end all opposition in the resource-rich but impoverished region.
“It will completely surrender [civilian authority] and remain loyal to the [military] establishment,” he said.
Saeed says that the major landowners, tribal leaders, and business tycoons in BAP’s leadership are turncoats whose careers revolve around switching political parties to stay in power.
“Now this group of opportunists has gathered [in a single political party] to rule the province without challenging the [military] establishment’s narrative on various issues,” he said.
BAP emerged after lawmakers from the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) revolted and joined the opposition in moving a no-confidence vote against their coalition administration in Balochistan. After Nawab Sanaullah Zehri resigned as the chief minister or most senior elected provincial leader on January 9, his dissident colleagues formed the new administration. They also forced out the National Party (NP), a moderate Baluch ethno-nationalist group and the Pashtun nationalist Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party from the local government.
After a visit to the provincial capital, Quetta, even former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that many PML-N lawmakers were coerced into bringing down his party’s administration.
“People told me about being pressured by intelligence agencies. Some people told me about receiving phone calls [from intelligence operatives],” Abbasi told Pakistan’s Capital TV.
BAP was formally launched in March after one of its lawmakers was elected as chairman of the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani parliament. Abdul Qaddus Bizenjo, a key leader and the former chief minister of Balochistan, claimed that "the new party will be a gift and a surprise for the people of Balochistan." In May, its president, Mir Jam Kamal, said BAP will safeguard the rights and interests of Balochistan.
Pakistan’s military denies supporting BAP or any other political party or playing a part in shaping the country's politics. “We do not have any political party or [political] alignment and are working only for the country, ” military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told journalists on July 10.
Critics, however, argue that BAP will do anything but bring prosperity to Balochistan. Columnist Mohammad Ali Talpur is a veteran of a previous Baluch nationalist insurrection in the 1970s. He expects BAP to be instrumental in crushing any dissent and opposition to the multibillion-dollar Chinese investments collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Balochistan’s Gwadar port is seen as a lynchpin for the trade and energy corridor, which aims to connect northwestern China to the Gulf through road and rail networks in Pakistan.
“The CPEC demands a complete crushing of opposition, and this party is there to act as the supposedly democratic face of the brutality that will be needed to satisfy Chinese demand for security and stability,” Talpur said. Armed Baluch separatist groups oppose the elections and have claimed some attacks on the campaign.
Sardar Akhtar Mengal, leader of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), one of the major Baluch ethno-nationalist parties, sees BAP as a pressure group. He says the party has been imposed on Balochistan politics by some hidden forces.
“I think the people of Balochistan can no longer be lured by force. The masses here will vote on performance,” he said.
NP leader Mir Hasil Bizenjo agrees but sees BAP losing steam in the long run. He sees its fate similar to the political parties and leaders who previously attempted to counter Baluch ethno-nationalism. “BAP will vanish as the people of the province will reject it in the upcoming polls,” Bizenjo said.
But BAP leaders hope they will score a historic win by winning seats in both the southern Baluch- and northern Pashtun-populated parts of the province. They deny being propped up by the military and claim that resolving longstanding development and governance issues united them.
The party has fielded candidates in most of Balochistan’s 67 national and provincial assembly constituencies. “The notion is that BAP, a single party with a majority, will form the Balochistan government in 2018,” party President Jam Kamal told supporters.
While leading his party’s election campaign across the vast arid region, he is promising jobs, essential services, and restoring peace to the province. “BAP has been formed to safeguard the interests of the people of Balochistan,” Jam told journalists.
However, Arif Baloch, editor of the Urdu-language daily Azadi, doesn’t agree. He says that “to achieve a majority in Balochistan by a single party would be historic” but such a feat is likely to evade BAP.
But journalist Saeed sees an uncertain future for BAP if the PML-N wins the election on July 25. “This party might even disappear from the scene,” he said.
Kiyya Baloch is a freelance journalist who reports on the insurgency, militancy, and sectarian violence in Balochistan.