A TOYOTA hatchback bearing a banner of the newly formed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) drives through a market in this busy town in Balochistan’s Qilla Abdullah district close to the border with Afghanistan, its loudspeakers exhorting people to cast their vote for the new political outfit. The scene provides one of the few moments of energy in what locals say is a generally lacklustre election campaign in the district, part of what is known as the province’s Pakhtun belt.
Named after tribal leader Sardar Abdullah Khan Achakzai, Qilla Abdullah, according to Census 2017, is among 11 of 34 districts in the province where the Pakhtuns are in a majority and has a population of more than 757,000, of which 75 per cent is rural. It is also, as per a recent UNDP human development report, the poorest district in Pakistan with dire health and literary indicators.
The local economy of Chaman is hugely dependent on cross-border trade, both legal and illegal. According to journalist Naimatullah Sarhadi, speaking to Dawn in his office high above a bustling bazaar, only 10 per cent of the cross-border trade here is legal, because the government offers little incentive for people to adopt the legal route. However, only a few smugglers are big players; most are small-time operators. “They are daily wage earners who take their goods to the border and sell it to importers on the Afghan side. If the border is closed, their families literally go hungry.”
Not surprisingly, anything that impedes this major source of income has a significant bearing on political sentiment in the area. Call it the burden of incumbency, but there seems to be considerable resentment here with the previously elected coalition provincial government, specifically its Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) component.
Trade union leader Habibullah Achakzai, a stout man with the bearing of one used to addressing rallies, rattles off a series of grievances that locals harbour against a party they believe should have better represented their interests. Among them is what he alleges was PkMAP’s lack of action when a clash in May last year between Pakistani and Afghan border guards led to the border being closed for a month.
“Then there are the FC check-posts between Chaman and Quetta — 18 of them over a 120km distance — that have made our lives hell,” says Mr Habibullah. Claiming that Pakhtun women travelling in passenger vans have even been temporarily detained at check-posts — that, to make matters worse, have all-male personnel — because like many women in this conservative area, they did not possess CNICs, he says Pakhtuns are routinely humiliated in their interactions with the paramilitary force.
Interestingly, he says the fact that the FC personnel are largely Pakhtun themselves is irrelevant, because “they are Pakhtuns from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, not Balochistan.”
Locals point the finger of blame at the provincial government because the Balochistan governor is PkMAP’s Muhammed Khan Achakzai, older brother of PkMAP chairman and National Assembly candidate Mahmood Khan Achakzai. “Not only did he keep renewing the FC’s powers, he did nothing to address our concerns,” complains Jamal Shah, a shopkeeper. “PkMAP uses the nationalism card to gain votes, but what good has it done us these past five years?” This loss of faith in nationalism may be part of a wider pattern in the province, where both the National Party and PkMAP — who comprised two out of three parties in the previous provincial government — seem to have left many but the most diehard supporters disillusioned.
About 50 kilometres away, across the Khojak Pass, the dusty main street of Killa Abdullah town is quiet on a hot July afternoon. There are party flags aplenty though, mostly those of JUI-F, PkMAP and BAP. The area is known for its orchards — aside from smuggling, fruit cultivation is the other main source of income in the district. But an extended drought and depleting stores of underground water are increasing poverty and unemployment.
A tea seller, Abdul Nabi, also complains bitterly about the water shortage. Perched on a raised platform behind rows of white teapots, he claims he voted for the PkMAP in the previous election, but will opt for the JUI-F candidate — JUI-F is one of the component parties of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) platform this time around. “I don’t know if he’ll do a better job, but at least he’s Allah-wala [a man of faith].”
Abdul Bari has been selling shoes in the market for over five years. He says he still has faith in PkMAP. When asked why, he responds, “They’ve made schools, and dams,” a contention that provokes jeers from some of the bystanders.
On the other hand, Jamaluddin, surrounded by piles of neatly stacked mithai at his stall, says he will vote for Nawaz Sharif “because he brought peace to the country”. He was unable to vote the last time because of illness. To a question about voting for a non-Pakthun candidate, he laughs and says emphatically that he “does not believe in qaum parasti [parochialism]”.
Even if Jamaluddin changes his mind by the time he gets to a polling booth, his response is unusual. Politics in Balochistan’s Pakhtun belt has long been based on tribal rather than party affiliation, personality- rather than agenda-driven. Influence and status wins votes; if an electable changes parties, the votes follow him. Sometimes votes get distributed because of tribal rivalries — not to mention tribal feuds, of which there are plenty in the district. Only JUI-F with its religious agenda has bucked the trend of tribe-based politics in the area, even though it does include some tribal influentials.
PkMAP leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s own village, Inayatullah Karez in the district’s Gulistan tehsil, has reportedly still not recovered from a long-running feud between the Hamidzai and Ghabizai sub-tribes of the Achakzai tribe. “It was once a beautiful place but no longer, not after both sides used rockets and mortars against each other,” says a journalist.
According to many, the real competition in the district (NA-263 and PB-21, PB-22 and PB-23) will be between PkMAP, JUI-F and BAP, the last of which is accused by its rivals to have the security establishment’s support. “BAP has put up candidates with strong tribal backgrounds, for example Capt retired Khaliq Achazkai who’s also head of the Nusratzai, the Achakzai tribe’s largest branch,” says journalist Fazal Mohammed Jajak. “JUI-F and the nationalists [both PkMAP and ANP] have traditionally dominated this area, but people are very disillusioned because there’s been no development work here.”
What makes it even more galling is that the planning & development portfolio was with PkMAP in the previous coalition, and that the Balochistan governor is from Gulistan tehsil in the same district.
One of the candidates against PkMAP chairman Mahmood Khan Achakzai on NA-263 is another sardar, Mohammed Umer Achakzai, who though standing as an independent is being tacitly supported by BAP, say local journalists. They disclose that many minor tribal elders standing in the elections have received phone calls and been told to support BAP if they want to continue living in the area. According to a Chaman resident: “It seems the plan is to collect these independents and then push them into BAP in order to defeat PkMAP in the Pakhtun belt. It’s difficult to tell though whether it will work; the pieces haven’t yet fallen into place.” One of the jokes going around is that many BAP candidates have found their baap (father) at a fairly advanced age.
Locals maintain that JUI-F — fighting from the MMA platform — remains a strong contender, especially after reconciling with its hardline breakaway faction JUI-N (Nazriyati). Its candidates, who openly support the Afghan Taliban, had even in 2008 been spoilers of the religious vote. Perhaps that is why JUI-F has been generous in awarding tickets to them. The MMA contender on NA-263, Maulvi Salahuddin Ayubi, is also a former JUI-N leader who had won 37,814 votes in this constituency in 2013. Had JUI-F contested as one entity in that election, it would have been enough to narrowly beat Mr Achakzai on what is his home seat.
It is telling that Mr Achakzai himself appears somewhat disheartened at the way the electoral landscape is shaping up. “If there are genuine elections, then there’ll be competition between us and JUI-F. Otherwise I don’t know what will be the outcome,” he tells Dawn at his residence in Quetta. “This is the only country that corrupts its own children, makes ‘files’ against them, brings them into power, then blackmails them with [the information in] those files.”
Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2018