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Restive Pakistani Province Faces Political Upheaval

FILE: Nawab Sanaullah Zehri (C) surrounded by Balochistan lawmakers.
FILE: Nawab Sanaullah Zehri (C) surrounded by Balochistan lawmakers.

Pakistan’s beleaguered southwestern province of Balochistan is in the midst of a political crisis as its provincial government faces ouster through a no-confidence vote.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) is trying hard to rescue its coalition provincial administration in Balochistan, where many of the party’s parliamentary deputies have revolted against their leader, Nawab Sanaullah Zehri.

As the chief minister or most senior elected official in the province, Zehri is facing the most difficult challenge after being sworn into office in December 2015. His election was part of a power-sharing agreement between the PML-N and two smaller Pashtun and Baluch ethno-nationalist political parties in a region reeling from decades of separatist violence, government crackdowns, and sectarian and terrorist attacks.

In what appears to be a desperate final attempt to salvage Zehri’s administration, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi visited the provincial capital, Quetta, late on January 8.

His mission, however, seemed in jeopardy as dissident members of the ruling coalition refused to meet with him ahead of the January 9 vote on the no-confidence motion.

FILE: Maulana Abdul Wasey
FILE: Maulana Abdul Wasey

Maulana Abdul Wasey, the opposition leader in Balochistan’s provincial legislature, says he is optimistic that their no-confidence vote will secure a majority in the 65-member provincial assembly.

“We opposed this government from day one and always pointed out its weaknesses,” he told journalists on January 8. “These so-called nationalists in the provincial government always claimed to get the rights and due share of Balochistan, but they have achieved nothing since assuming office more than four years ago [in 2013].”

Ironically, Wasey’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) group is a close ally of the PML-N in Pakistan’s federal government. His statement indicates that efforts by PML-N central leadership to save Zehri’s administration are increasingly proving difficult.

Shahzada Zulfiqar, a journalist in Quetta, says Zehri’s administration appears to be in danger after the defection of three key loyalists. On January 7, lawmakers Mir Asim Kurd Gello, Sheikh Jaffar Khan Mandokhail, and Tahir Mehmood declared their intention to back the no-confidence motion.

“Things are now becoming clearer. The opposition to Zehri now appears to have the requisite 33 members to bring him down,” Zulfiqar told Pakistan’s Bol Television, adding that Zehri apparently now has the backing of 30 members.

As the largest parliamentary party in Balochistan, the PML-N has 21 lawmakers, at least half of whom have now appeared to rebel. They are followed by the Pashtun nationalist Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party’s 14 members. National Party, a Baluch nationalist faction, has 11 members. With eight lawmakers Wasey’s JUI-F joined other smaller parliamentary parties to form the opposition in Balochistan.

Politics in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least populated province, have been dominated by hereditary tribal chiefs and clerics whose loyalties are mostly fluid as they frequently join and abandon political parties and coalitions. The province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has a long coastline along the Arabian Sea, where the port of Gwadar is turning into a key hub of Chinese efforts to project influence and develop a trade corridor through Pakistan.

Lawmaker Abdul Quddus Bizenjo is confident they now have the majority backing in the provincial assembly.

“I believe we are going to win because only 14 members had initially signed the no-confidence move [on January 2],” he said. “Since then, lawmakers have joined our cause in droves, with many even resigning from their posts. There is no going back; we have burned our boats.”

Observers and PML-N leaders are convinced the political turmoil in Balochistan is part of a larger struggle between their leader and ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the country’s powerful military establishment. Sharif has repeatedly criticized the military since Pakistan’s Supreme Court removed him from office in July for undeclared assets.

Last week, Sharif publicly called on the military establishment -- Pakistani euphemism for top army generals -- to abandon self-deception.

“I have repeatedly urged putting our house in order and have urged to reflect on why the world holds negative opinions about us,” he said in reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s accusation that Pakistan provides “safe haven to terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Anwar Sajdi, a senior journalist in Balochistan, says the machinations in Balochistan are basically aimed at depriving the PML-N from becoming the majority party in the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament.

“In March, the provincial assemblies are slotted to elect [nearly half or 52] members of the Senate, which prompts many people here to speculate that the current [political] turmoil in Balochistan is aimed at preventing the PML-N from tightening its hold over the central government,” he told the BBC’s Urdu service. “You must also know that Balochistan is a remote-controlled province. It is always controlled by the powers controlling the central government.”

Sardar Yaqoob Nasar, a senior PML-N leader from Balochistan, points at the timing of the no-confidence vote to reinforce the claim that its goal is to deprive his party of power. He questioned what prompted the “turncoats” in his party after they had been part of the provincial coalition government for more than four years.

“The move is aimed to influence the results of the Senate elections,” he noted. “If they had any complaints, they should have taken it to the electorate in the general election [scheduled for later this year].”

If the PML-N loses the January 9 no-confidence vote in Balochistan, its struggling administration will likely face more pressure in Islamabad and its key power base in the country’s most populated and prosperous eastern province of Punjab.

Political turmoil in Balochistan will add to its instability. For nearly 15 years, the region has reeled from a Baluch separatist insurgency and Islamabad’s efforts to suppress it through coercion. Hard-line sectarian and terrorist groups frequently attack members of religious minorities and minority Muslim sects, officials, and politicians. Criminality has mushroomed amid the chaos in Balochistan.

Radio Mashaal correspondent Ayub Tareen contributed reporting from Quetta, Balochistan.