It is midnight in Balochistan. A WhatsApp group called the Baloch Journalist Circle remains abuzz. There are around a hundred notifications.
These are messages from reporters from across the province. Some are filled with bragging claims from print and television reporters how they have inside information about which candidates will be winning the national and provincial assembly seats on July 25.
Others reveal how much money candidates were allegedly willing to offer influential tribal leaders in return for votes. They speculate which clan would vote for a particular candidate and often pilloried the ‘futile efforts’ of individual candidates to win over a community that had already committed to voting for a contender of their choice.
The group has more silent members than active participants. They only read messages but do not comment. The hushed members are curious about the discussions, but seem too scared to jump into these sensitive political conversations. They suspect that “big brother” is monitoring their WhatsApp group.
So, they prefer to stay quiet in order to remain safe.
Situationer: The killing fields
As the discussion gets intense and opposing views pop up, one journalist immediately shares a screenshot from an Urdu newspaper to support his argument. Others share photos of candidates attending corner meetings, supposedly discussing seat-to-seat adjustment.
The discussion is not always so sober. Members crack up with laughter as someone forwards a video clip showing a cow (a political party’s election symbol) literally eating up a rival candidate’s poster. The group never sleeps as election season gains momentum in Balochistan.
The next day, the Balochistan News Chanel (sic), a Facebook page also known as BNC, continues its indefatigable posting of live videos, photos and schedules of political gatherings from all over Balochistan.
The latest BNC Facebook Live is from Sarawan House, the residence of Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, a leader of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), who was killed in a suicide attack along with 149 other people on July 13, 2018 in Mastung.
Prominent national and local leaders, from Shahbaz Sharif to Imran Khan, are seen meeting with Nawab Aslam Raisani, Balochistan’s former chief minister and the slain leader’s elder brother, who is receiving condolences from the visitors.
On a sizzling summer day in Dera Bugti, once considered one of Pakistan’s most volatile districts, former home minister and BAP leader Sarfaraz Bugti unlocks his phone, captures a 26-second video from his election trail and posts it on Twitter.
The footage shows Bugti moving in an impressive convoy of expensive white vehicles. Most of his voters probably can’t imagine ever being able to afford these cars in their lifetime.
“InshAllah,” Bugti tweets, “we will win #PB10,” referring to the provincial assembly constituency from where he will be contesting elections.
He wants to win to “continue our ongoing efforts for the betterment and uplifting of #DeraBugti & #Balochistan.”
Day by day, Bugti is consolidating his grip over the gas-rich territory as his archrivals, Brahamdagh Bugti and family members of the late Nawab Akbar Bugti, live in exile, finding it nearly impossible to return home as a deadlock between the government and the Baloch nationalists and separatists persists.
Bugti, an intrepid Twitter user, takes his nationalism to the next level: he takes an Indian flag and stands on it to demonstrate his profound hatred for India.
Once the photo is ready, he posts it on Twitter. Within a few hours, he is flattered to see around 10,000 “likes” and more than 1,000 comments on his provocative photo.
In Quetta, Hasil Bizenjo, former federal minister and senior leader of the NP, tweeted his outrage at the Election Commission of Pakistan’s selection of Alauddin Marri as interim chief minister.
“After the choice of caretaker CM of Balochitan [sic], the people of Balochistan cannot trust this election commission,” he tweets, and tweets again sarcastically, “Thank you election commission for this joke.”
Never before in Balochistan’s history has an election had such a robust social media component.
Instant messaging services and live streaming platforms such as Facebook Live and Youtube have completely changed the dynamics and the landscape of the election campaign.
When the last general elections took place in May 2013, most politicians and activists in Balochistan did not even have a Twitter account. Today, they spend a reasonable amount of time on Twitter and prioritise communicating with their followers and also monitor the activities and strategies of their opponents.
Political parties and politicians have migrated to cyberspace and the world of social media with unprecedented preparation and sophistication.
Most parties have dedicated social media teams comprised of educated professionals with excellent command of English and graphic design skills who engage party supporters with an unending cycle of colourful illustrations and fresh promotional content.
Parties have invested enormously to ensure that all their campaign meetings, rallies and press conferences are aired live on social media.
Reliance on traditional media has significantly decreased as followers remain glued to their parties’ social media feeds instead of scanning the papers for fresh stories.
These days, a party’s press secretary holds the key to all the social media accounts. They maintain a busy calendar to make sure activities are aired live, tweets are sent out and all social media pages are updated on time.
The press secretary’s role has evolved. They were once only responsible for writing press releases and dispatching them to newspaper offices. Now, they are expected to be all-rounders.
Never before have politicians and their voters in Balochistan have had such an intimate and uninterrupted connection.
When Abdul Quddus Bizenjo was elected as a member of the Balochistan Assembly in 2013 by winning only 544 votes out of the total registered votes of 57,666 in PB-41(Awaran), his victory was described as a “miracle.”
Political parties alleged that the election of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) legislator had become a textbook example of guaranteed victory if a candidate enjoyed the support of certain elements of the state.
Bizenjo had made history by obtaining the lowest number of votes ever in Pakistan’s history to be elected to a legislative chamber.
Bizenjo’s father, Majeed Bizenjo, had also served as a member of the Balochistan Assembly in the past, while the junior Bizenjo had himself obtained more graceful numbers of the vote in the 2002 and 2008 elections. The elections five years ago were indeed his most disgraceful electoral performance.
Widely viewed as an underdog, Bizenjo was surprisingly appointed as the deputy speaker of the provincial assembly in June 2013. He eventually resigned from the position in December 2015 after the speaker of the house, Jan Mohammad Jamali, resigned in the wake of a no-confidence motion.
As time passed, Bizenjo stunned everyone, emerging as a kingmaker and master strategist, playing a decisive role in the rebellion that led to the ouster of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) Chief Minister Sardar Sanaullah Zehri in January 2018.
Analysts believed Zehri was punished for his loyalty to the ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Bizenjo, whose party had only six seats in the Balochistan Assembly against the PML-N’s 21, dumbfounded everyone when he, with the support of dissidents from the PML-N, replaced Zehri as Balochistan’s new chief minister.
Meanwhile, another development that marked the increasing influence of the ‘establishment’ on Balochistan’s politics was the election of an entirely unknown figure, Mir Sadiq Sanjrani, as the new Senate chairman .
Bizenjo, while capitalising on Balochistan’s backwardness and underrepresentation card, played a pivotal role in garnering support from the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) for Sanjrani's election as the Senate chairman. This was the harbinger of a major political storm in the province.
Two weeks later, Bizenjo went on to take several defectors from the PML-N and some from the PML-Q to form a new pro-state political party called the BAP.
The awkward acronym BAP in Urdu translates as ‘father’, drawing tremendous ridicule from opposition parties and on social media saying that the state had not only created a new king’s party ahead of the next general elections, but had also given it a suggestive name that highlights the consequences a disobedient child might face from a strict father.
Founded in March 2018, the BAP looks less like a political party and more a conglomerate of pro-Islamabad tribal notables and self-identified electable leaders who have historically remained affiliated with every party that has ruled at the centre.
While overtly supportive of the military’s policies in Balochistan and critical of the Baloch nationalists, the BAP has generated déjà vu in the province — it is reminiscent of PML-Q’s formation under General Musharraf ahead of the 2002 general elections.
With the BAP in the running, others see limited chances of a victory.
The BAP leaders deny the involvement of any covert hand behind its creation. In plain words, they say they have united to create a new front because they are fed up with the manipulation of the province and its mandate by the country’s two biggest political parties, the PPP and the PML-N.
The BAP’s most apparent weakness is this: it is not the result of a mass public movement.
It is only a movement of electables who would still have a strong chance of winning their respective seats regardless of the party that awards them a ticket. These powerful tribal chiefs have won elections from their strongholds for generations.
Thus, the BAP, in an effort not to irk the state, does not touch upon topics that could annoy Islamabad.
For example, the party does not raise the issue of enforced disappearances, torture and killings of political activists and it does not promise to hold talks with the Baloch insurgents after coming into power, which is extremely critical for any government in Balochistan to restore peace in the province.
In the wake of the BAP’s formation, political analyst Jalal Noorzai described it as an “unnatural party” that pretends to be speaking for the rights of the people of Balochistan.
“There is a long history of these people [leaders in the BAP] changing their political direction based on the dictations they get from the powerful quarters,” he wrote. “There is no dearth of such figures in Balochistan whose eyes are fixated on power and personal interests.”
Noorzai traced the history of Jam Kamal Khan, the president of the BAP, whose grandfather Jam Ghulam Qadir served twice as Balochistan’s chief minister while Kamal’s father, the late Jam Mohammad Yousaf, served as a staunch pro-Musharraf chief minister of Balochistan.
Notwithstanding the criticism of its origins and connections, the BAP is positioned to win the bulk of seats in the upcoming elections, paving the way for a pro-federation narrative and further isolating the Baloch nationalists.
The emergence BAP has worried all established political parties, particularly the Baloch nationalists because it is poised to grab more seats from Baloch areas as compared to Pashtun districts.
Consequently, the established political parties, such as the Balochistan National Party (BNP), are seen making desperate alliances with completely strange bedfellows, such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.
With less than a week to go until polling day, last Friday’s terrorist attack that killed BAP leader Nawabzada Siraj Raisani will further turn the electoral tide in the party’s favour.
After the Mastung tragedy, the BAP’s legitimacy will get a boost as it will rise as the party that sacrificed a key leader and more activists and supporters than any other during the election campaign.
While the BAP is destined to get more sympathy votes, the Mastung carnage has made campaigning extremely difficult for the rest of the political parties because of the fear of another similar attack on a political rally.
The Mastung attack has dimmed political activity, but it has provided a glimpse of the challenges a future government in Quetta will have to grapple with, mostly concerning fighting and eliminating violent extremist groups.
Barring the unprecedented Mastung tragedy and a few other small violent incidents, the election campaign this year has, by and large, been filled with enthusiasm and higher public participation.
Unlike 2013, when political parties campaigned in the Baloch-majority districts, with the absolute fear of threats from Baloch armed nationalist groups, conditions for peaceful elections have relatively improved this time.
For the previous polls, the Baloch insurgents had urged the public to boycott the ballots. They warned public employees, such as school teachers and police officers, not to staff election booths and threatened voters to stay indoors.
Insurgents even went on to carry out attacks on several election campaigns. In one such attack on April 17, 2013, the son, brother, and nephew of the future chief minister and the provincial head of the PML-N Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, were killed.
The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a banned underground organisation, accepted responsibility for the attack.
On May 6, 2013, the president of the NP and the future chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch also escaped unhurt in a hand grenade attack in his native Turbat district. The abysmal law and order situation led to a poor voter turnout in most Baloch areas.
When Abdul Malik Baloch was elected as Balochistan’s first-ever chief minister from the province’s middle class following the 2013 elections, his rise to power generated unrealistic expectations in the troubled region.
Emerging as the head of the provincial government from a coalition between the PML-N, the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the NP, Abdul Malik promised to end the prolonged insurgency in Balochistan and initiate dialogue with disillusioned Baloch leaders, including those currently living in exile.
Despite some meetings with the Baloch leaders living abroad, Abdul Malik failed to achieve a breakthrough in his peace efforts because of a lackluster response both from the exiled Baloch leadership as well as the powerful elements of the state.
Instead, Abdul Malik’s credibility at the local level was tarnished so severely for the following three reasons that he is not running for reelection this year.
First, to protect his position as the chief minister, he went overboard in rewarding his coalition partners in the PkMAP, particularly from Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s family, by giving them a free hand.
Hence, Achakzai appointed several family members on top government positions, including nominating his elder brother, Mohammad Khan Achakzai, as provincial governor.
Abdul Malik’s allies in the PML-N accused him of being too generous and soft on the PkMAP only in an effort to guard his own interests. He was also accused of nepotism and mismanagement during his term as the chief minister.
Second, Abdul Malik’s rivals accused his party members of “spying” for security services and allegedly sponsoring death squads that targeted activists of the Baloch nationalist movement.
Despite repeated rebuttals, Abdul Malik could not entirely dispel the public perception that his party was allegedly helping security forces commit extrajudicial killings of Baloch activists.
Once widely respected as a Baloch nationalist, Abdul Malik gained the reputation of a puppet and a collaborator.
Third, Abdul Malik came under fire for not adequately speaking up for Balochistan’s rights when the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was unveiled.
Although he insisted he had not been consulted on the multi-billion dollar project, opponents criticised him for not doing enough to ensure transparency on CPEC.
Another area where Abdul Malik’s government failed miserably was the recovery of missing persons.
Read more: The long insurgency
While the aftermath of the 2013 elections initially saw the rise of a stable democratic alliance between self-proclaimed progressive Baloch and Pashtun nationalists, the end of the government after five years marked the beginning of severe differences between the two ethnic groups on issues of representation, allocation of development funds and control over the province's resources.
These differences escalated to an alarming and ugly level. Verbal fights between the Baloch and Pashtun leaders broke out inside the Balochistan Assembly and disputes over naming critical projects after Baloch or Pashtun figures led to a frequent exchange of abusive words.
The Pashtuns threatened to create their own province; the Balochs accused them of blackmailing the government. Hence, the Baloch and Pashtuns parties are no longer actively reaching out to each other for seat-to-seat adjustment and electoral alliances.
On June 1, 2018, Dr Allah Nazar Baloch, leader of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), an underground separatist group, asked Baloch voters to boycott the general elections.
Citing the low turnout in the 2013 elections as a “victory” of his stance, Allah Nazar said the Baloch people had voted against the polls in what he described as a “referendum”.
But the influence of the BLF and other Baloch armed groups has gradually dwindled in the past five years.
The public participation in election rallies and corner meetings across the province is indicative of the fact that people are less afraid this time and not inclined toward another boycott. However, that does not mean that the political parties are also free to say whatever they want.
The space created for these parties seems to have come in return for an unwritten understanding between the Baloch nationalists and certain elements of the state that the former shall not cross specific policy red lines in their election speeches.
While an election year is an excellent opportunity to reflect on past performance and work for a better future, Balochistan is entering an election season where politicians are free to assemble, use social media and speak on “soft issues”, such as health and education, but are not allowed to discuss “hard issues” that pertain to the ongoing insurgency, counterinsurgency operations, human rights abuses, the recent political engineering of the Senate elections and reservations over CPEC.
Discussing the hard issues in election campaigns has become taboo because it may offend people in influential quarters. This fear of being punished and ostracised has compelled even the Baloch nationalists to soften their stance on critical issues.
For instance, the BNP, which once based its electoral agenda on the subject of military operations and enforced disappearances, has kept the demand for the release of missing persons as a very low priority in its election manifesto.
There is evident anxiety among the voters and their leaders on a host of issues, including on Balochistan’s share in CPEC, but not everyone feels safe to assert their reservations.
“The people of Gwadar must be the top beneficiaries of the CPEC project,” says Aslam Bhootani, once the Speaker of the Balochistan Assembly who is now running for the National Assembly seat in NA 272 Lasbela-cum-Gwadar.
Bhootani has said he is not a nationalist but would raise his voice for the legitimate rights of the people at all forums and would not mind if his views and struggle annoyed some people.
Only someone as politically powerful and loyal to Islamabad as Bhootani, formerly a staunch supporter of General Musharraf, could make such bold remarks.
Everyone running for office does not seem to enjoy the same level of freedom to openly speak up on Balochistan’s past, present and the future.
An election campaign without sufficient space to debate on the actual political, economic and security issues, and a promise of justice does not seem to guarantee a happier and a more stable future to the country’s persistently unstable province.
However, it appears despite the unfulfilled promises of the past, Balochistan is still willing to give a new democratic government the chance to take the province to the promised age of development and prosperity that has been promised to its people for the past seven decades.
Illustration by Mushba Said