AS the newly-elected chief minister, Dr Abdul Malik, ends his first week in office amid cheers about his middle class roots — making him an anomaly in an office that has been the exclusive domain of Sardars or tribal chieftains — he faces pressures from Baloch who feel increasingly alienated from the provincial government in Quetta, and the federal power-holders in Islamabad.
According to BBC Urdu, 12 bodies were dumped in the first week after election day on May 11, and another five bodies were found in Balochistan the day that Dr Abdul Malik took his oath in front of the provincial assembly. Reports tell tales of additional mutilated corpses discarded across the province, including district Kech, where the new chief minister was elected to his PB-48 Balochistan Assembly seat.
An exclusive data analysis carried out by Dawn also shows historically low voter turnouts in Balochistan, particularly southern districts like Awaran, Panjgur, Lasbela, Kharan, Kech and Gwadar that are dominated by the non-tribal, Baloch middle class and parts of the separatist uprising. Only four of 14 provincial assembly seats from these parts of the province saw an increase in the percentage of voter turnouts compared to the last two elections. Ten districts experienced percentage point drops as high as 42 per cent, with Dr Malik’s own constituency seeing a mere 12 per cent show out to vote, compared to 41 per cent in 2008. Tahir Mehdi of Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group, says that low voter turnouts are only part of the story: National Identity Card requirements and large distances to polling booths means most Baloch have not even been registered. As for the voter turnouts, Mehdi says they are, at best, a reflection of inadequate arrangements for a safe and secure election in Balochistan, and, at worst, a sign of discontent with the Pakistani state. Separatists go further, saying that it is a clear signal that the Baloch want out of Pakistan.
“I am facing some enormous challenges in the months and years ahead. The Baloch did not turn out to vote. And, the kill-and-dump atrocities that have been the norm rather than the exception continue, along with the general deprivation among the people of Balochistan,” says Dr Malik in an interview with Dawn.
In an attempt to address the fissures among the Baloch — where a significant number, if not a majority, could be sympathetic towards political parties or groups that propagate the full-fledged separation of Balochistan from Pakistan—Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have attempted to promote a conciliatory policy that aims to “mainstream” Baloch leaders. On Wednesday, the prime minister directed Dr Malik to initiate a broad-based reconciliation process in the province — one that includes bringing more marginalised groups into the conversation.
Dr Malik has promised to pursue “confidence-building measures” in his first 100 days in office, which include asking security forces to return missing persons home, before approaching three major separatist groups: Dr Allah Nazar’s primarily middle-class Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), Brahamdagh Bugti’s Baloch Republican Party (BRP) and Harbiyar Marri’s Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA).
However, Dr Malik is accused of either “[lacking] the capability [to diagnose Balochistan’s problem]” or “intentionally trying to cover it up”, according to one separatist leader, Dr Allah Nazar. Other leaders agree, adding that he does not have the grit to stand up to the primary suspects behind Balochistan’s missing persons: the security establishment.
Proponents of Dr Malik argue that Nawaz Sharif has a better chance than his predecessors of wresting back control of the policy currently being pursued in the province. They argue that the prime minister enjoys more respect within army ranks, despite being ousted by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999. Broad-based support from other parties within the Balochistan Assembly might also prove helpful to Dr Malik, as he tries to find a way forward.
“We have been supporters of Dr Malik’s election as chief minister, because we believe that our two parties can bring about some real change in a province that needs healing,” says Muhammad Usman Kakar, the Balochistan head of the Pakthunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP). The primarily Pashtun PkMAP’s Muhammad Khan Achakzai was nominated as the governor, as the federal government attempted to move towards political parity between Balochistan’s Pashtun and Baloch populations. Unlike Balochistan’s Baloch areas south of Quetta, its Pashtun belt in the north saw historically large increases in voter turnout, with many of the seats going to the left-wing, secular PkMAP.
Though Dr Malik might enjoy widespread political support from Islamabad and Quetta, Malik Siraj Akbar, the editor of The Baloch Hal, says that the mainstreaming of disillusioned Baloch and the integration of the province into Pakistan will prove to be a challenge.
“Dr Abdul Malik’s nomination is a positive step forward. But it is primarily a shift in establishment policy, not a shift in the Baloch opinion. Dr Abdul Malik is definitely a Pakistan and Pashtun favourite — and his middle-class roots and history as a community leader means he presents a break in an office historically dominated by Sardars. But the truth is that the Baloch did not vote in this election. Though Dr Malik is a middle-class Baloch, neither the Baloch, nor its middle class, owns him,” says Akbar.
In an interview to VSH TV, a Balochi TV channel, Dr Allah Nazar of the BLF said that the low voter turnouts were proof that the elections were a “referendum in favour of Balochistan’s liberation”.
“You say we disturbed the elections, I say no. We didn’t disturb the electoral process, but the Baloch people supported our call by boycotting the elections,” said Dr Nazar. Separatist groups have not indicated a desire to take part in negotiations with the Pakistani government. They have also had little say in Pakistan’s mainstream debate, which looks at Dr Malik’s nomination with rose-tinted glasses rather than recognising the challenges he faces, says Akbar.
“Dr Malik will most likely address corruption and socio-economic issues in Balochistan during his tenure. It is unlikely that he can face up to the security forces. Unfortunately, until the bodies stop falling, Baloch opinion will be hard to shift,” says Akbar.