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ANALYSIS: The view from Makran

Updated July 02, 2018

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MAKRAN division of Balochistan contains some key electoral races that will be watched closely, as they pit some of the province’s political heavyweights against each other in the strategically important, yet underdeveloped region.

Along with the heated political battles expected on polling day, voter turnout will also be keenly followed as parts of Makran have been affected by the Baloch separatist insurgency, though violence is comparatively down compared to the situation in 2013.

BALOCHISTAN National Party-Mengal chief Akhtar Mengal
BALOCHISTAN National Party-Mengal chief Akhtar Mengal

While predictions and crystal-ball gazing can be tricky pursuits, background interviews with journalists and officials based in Makran give one the impression that in the three National Assembly constituencies that fall within the division, it will be a tough contest between the area’s usual ‘electables’, particularly the candidates of the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) and the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).

As per the new delimitations, Makran contains three NA seats: NA-270 (Panjgur-cum-Washuk-cum-Awaran); NA-271 (Kech) and NA-272 (Lasbela-cum-Gwadar).

NA-270 covers three districts, Panjgur, Washuk and Awaran. In the 2013 polls, the seat was won by Jam Kamal Khan (now a leading BAP leader and the present Jam of Lasbela) as an independent candidate with over 56,000 votes. In the 2008 elections, Jam Kamal’s late father Jam Yousuf took the seat with over 50,000 votes.

While NA-270 covers a huge area bordering Lasbela and Khuzdar in the east and Iran in the west, it is quite sparsely populated. As per the Election Commission of Pakistan’s final electoral rolls, Awaran had 77,177 registered voters, Panjgur 101,256 and Washuk 53,156. According to observers, BAP appears to have the best chance of getting their candidate elected from this constituency.

BALOCHISTAN Awami Party chief Jam Kamal Khan
BALOCHISTAN Awami Party chief Jam Kamal Khan

Coming to NA-271, it covers the district of Kech. In the 2013 polls, the seat was won by former federal minister retired Lt Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch on a PML-N ticket with just over 7,000 votes while in 2008 it was also the general who took the seat with over 22,000 votes.

This time, with the security situation slightly better in the constituency, a lively competition can be expected. There are 222,631 registered voters in NA-271 as per the ECP’s data. Observers say writer and former bureaucrat Jan Mohammad Dashti, contesting on a BNP-M ticket, appears to be the leading candidate, though he is likely to face tough competition from the BAP and BNP-Awami ticket-holders.

But perhaps the most hotly contested seat in Makran will be NA-272. The constituency borders Sindh on its eastern flank, and Iran on its west. In 2013, the BNP-M’s Sayed Essa Noori won the seat with nearly 16,000 votes while in the previous election Yaqoob Bizenjo of the BNP-A had been declared victorious with more than 61,000 votes.

56,000 is the number of votes Jam Kamal won NA-270 with as an independent candidate. In the 2008 elections Jam Kamal’s late father Jam Yousuf took the seat with over 50,000 votes.

According to the ECP’s numbers, Lasbela has 236,538 registered voters while Gwadar has 120,341. Some of the biggest guns in Balochistan politics are in the run for this key seat, which contains Gwadar, billed as Pakistan’s next boomtown and the key beneficiary of the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) bonanza. BNP-M chief Akhtar Mengal is in the run, as is BAP leader Jam Kamal and former speaker of the Balochistan Assembly Aslam Bhootani.

There have been some testy exchanges between the candidates, particularly Akhtar Mengal and Jam Kamal on social media, and the race is expected to be tight. As a Gwadar-based analyst points out, Aslam Bhootani too cannot be counted out easily.

Questions over security

Considering the fact that the region was affected by separatist militancy for long, security of candidates and voters is a key question. But according to observers in the region, there should be a considerable difference between now and the 2013 polls as security has improved considerably.

“The security issue exists but it is better than 2013; back then candidates could not carry out their campaigns. People were not willing to stand [in some areas]. In the current situation, issues exist in Turbat and Awaran. A few incidents have occurred” where candidates have been attacked, says the Gwadar-based analyst.

FORMER speaker of the Balochistan Assembly Aslam Bhootani
FORMER speaker of the Balochistan Assembly Aslam Bhootani

Asked how strong the sardari system was in Makran, he said it was not as effective as in some other parts of Balochistan. “The Sardari system does exist [in Makran]. However political parties are weak organisationally. Here [come election time] a lot depends on ‘connections’, who you know, and the biradari system”.

A Quetta-based journalist agrees that the security situation has improved though the hot weather may influence voter turnout as it can get extremely hot in these parts of Balochistan in the summer when many families move to cooler climes.

An officer in Gwadar’s local government department, speaking off the record, said this time around the BNP-M’s chances look good, though the National Party (NP), which previously had its man — Dr Abdul Malik Baloch — sit in Chief Minister House in Quetta during half of the previous set-up, may not do well.

The security issue exists but it is better than 2013; back then candidates could not carry out their campaigns. People were not willing to stand [in some areas]. At present issues exist in Turbat and Awaran. A few incidents have occurred where candidates have been attacked. Gwadar-based analyst

“Mengal has made some good alliances in Makran. His party is strong and may replace NP. Dr Malik is not even contesting. Jan Mohammad Dashti is very strong candidate in NA-271. Also, we Baloch like to give new contenders a try if [the previous lawmakers] have failed to deliver,” he observed.

On July 25, it will be much clearer whether the nationalist BNP-M succeeds in its attempt to capture Makran’s electoral constituencies, or whether BAP, seen by some as ‘inspired’ by the establishment, grabs a slice of the pie. Whoever triumphs will have to address the burning issues of the area, particularly the water crisis in Gwadar.

Whoever wins or loses, it is key for all political players to take part in the electoral process, for as candidate for NA-271 Jan Mohammad Dashti observed the decision by certain political forces to boycott the past several elections was “a big mistake”, and that leaving the field open to “non-political elements” had allowed these forces to make it to the legislatures.

While the electoral process in Balochistan, and Pakistan overall, may be far from perfect, for the people of Makran, not participating will only aggravate the issues.

Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2018