Has the PTI made any progress in Balochistan?

The release of a number of missing persons and the inauguration of the Zhob-Quetta road are the only positives so far.
Published August 26, 2019

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) made several pledges to Balochistan in its manifesto for the 2018 general elections, such as championing political reconciliation in the province, ensuring that its people get their share of benefits from the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), initiating a poverty alleviation drive and empowering people at the grassroots through local government.

One year on, the PTI trails behind on nearly all these promises.

Political reconciliation

The PTI’s promise to “empower the Balochistan government to launch and champion large-scale efforts for political reconciliation” and to “reach out to the Baloch leadership and disgruntled Baloch groups” was arguably its most important, and difficult, challenge.

But contrary to campaign promises, the PTI government has yet to initiate any effort to reach out to the Baloch insurgents. Instead, the past one year has seen an escalation of conflict.

The Baloch armed groups orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks on Chinese personnel: the suicide attack on a bus carrying Chinese engineers in Dalbandin, the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi as well as the one on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar.

Furthermore, in April 2019, militants belonging to an alliance of Baloch separatist groups singled out and killed 14 bus passengers near Ormara, including navy, air force and coast guards personnel.

The Baloch separatist leader, who masterminded the attack on the Chinese consulate, was eventually killed in a suicide attack in Kandahar along with five associates. Though unsubstantiated, it is believed that Taliban groups sympathetic to Pakistan might have carried out the attack at Islamabad’s behest. Similarly, in a major diplomatic triumph for Islamabad, the United States recently designated the Balochistan Liberation Army as a global terrorist group.

Related: Who speaks for Balochistan in the upcoming elections?

The past year also witnessed tension and unrest in Balochistan's northern Pashtun belt, where the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) has a strong support base. The mysterious death of a university lecturer, Arman Luni, during a scuffle between the police and protesters in Loralai created huge resentment among the people, resulting in protests and sit-ins in Loralai, Zhob and Quetta. The resentment grew deeper as several PTM leaders in the province were subsequently arrested and the movement’s figurehead, Manzoor Pashteen, was banned from entering Balochistan.

Additionally, terrorist attacks targeting law enforcement agencies, especially the police, have been on the rise. Similarly, the Shia Hazara community has continued to be the target of sectarian violence. The community organised a sit-in after the Hazarganji bombing that claimed 20 lives. They received assurances from high-level government functionaries on multiple occasions, but these would do little to ensure a long-term solution.

Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that the PTI has failed in its most important pledge vis-à-vis Balochistan. There are two reasons for this.

First, the two most important players in the province — the military and the Balochistan Awami Party (Bap) — are not in favour of reconciliation with the Baloch insurgents. Outreach efforts can’t make headway without the military’s support, which views Balochistan through a very narrow security prism.

The military needs to realise that force alone can ensure only partial and temporary peace at best and that a low-level insurgency could continue almost indefinitely no matter the security measures.

Complete suppression and defeat of the Baloch insurgency is nearly impossible — and a low-level insurgency is enough to put the state on the defensive, draw international attention and unsettle foreign investors.

Read next: The relentless assault on Hazaras continues. What can be done to stop it?

The Bap had never been sympathetic to the idea of reconciliation with the armed Baloch groups. The party mostly comprises of politicians who are believed to be loyal to the military. Most of them are beneficiaries of the on-going conflict and, therefore, have a stake in its continuity — and some of them fear losing their careers if a political settlement with the Baloch militants is agreed upon.

The Bap leadership also needs to understand that the insurgency, however low-scale it may be, poses a threat to initiatives like CPEC that can’t proceed without there being a minimum level of peace and stability. Reconciliation and a more inclusive political setup is essential for Bap to realise its goal of attracting foreign investment and promoting economic development in Balochistan.

Secondly, the security situation in Balochistan is linked to regional geopolitics. Durable peace in Pakistan's largest province by area cannot be established without peace in Afghanistan and normalcy in Saudi-Iran rivalry. Tackling religious and sectarian militancy in Balochistan, therefore, requires a fundamental shift in our policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Iran — something that the PTI has very little control over.

Local government

In its election manifesto, the PTI promised to devolve powers to people through an empowered local government system. The PTI, indeed, introduced positive reforms to the effect in Punjab. In contrast, not only the same has not been done in Balochistan, but elections have been put on hold.

The local government's term expired in January 2019 and under Section 219 (4) of the Elections Act, 2017 and Section 16 (2) of the Balochistan Local Government Elections Act, 2010, elections were to be held within 120 days after that.

However, the Balochistan government has postponed the elections indefinitely. It still maintains that it plans to reform the local government system, but as of August 2019, there are no signs of either the proposed reforms or elections taking place anytime soon.

Progress on CPEC

In the run-up to the elections, the PTI promised to “create two-way solid linkages with China” and ensure CPEC's benefits to Balochistan's population. Both the PTI and the Bap stepped into power harbouring skepticism about CPEC, which only deepened as they took stock of the situation after assuming office.

The Bap-led provincial government expressed serious reservations about the province’s meagre share in, and poor progress on, CPEC projects. Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan even boycotted the eight meeting of the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) held in China in December 2018. These protests and efforts, however, didn’t bear any fruit as the overall progress on CPEC slowed down under the PTI.

In-depth: Eight months in, how is Balochistan faring?

The International Monetary Fund deal has effectively foreclosed nearly all possibilities of loan-financed infrastructure projects under CPEC. This is particularly a great setback for Balochistan, where no progress was made on such projects under the CPEC's early harvest phase. It was hoped that road projects would be prioritised in the next phase.

CPEC’s Monographic Study on Transport Planning (2013-2030), which was jointly conducted by the governments of China and Pakistan and approved by the fifth JCC in November 2015, indeed provided for the upgrade of the existing road from DI Khan to Surab (via Zhob and Quetta) into a four-lane highway by 2020. A scaled-down CPEC and the IMF deal mean that Balochistan’s road projects are likely to remain without finances.

CPEC's next phase will focus mainly on industrial cooperation. Balochistan is unlikely to benefit much from it owing to weak human resource base, poor security situation, lack of competitiveness and a discouraging investment climate.

Silver lining

If there is any positive to the PTI’s rule thus far in Balochistan, it is the release of a number of missing persons and the inauguration of the Zhob-Quetta road project.

The provincial government met the activists advocating for the release of Baloch missing persons and vowed to address the issue — and since August 2018, dozens of missing persons have returned home. The Voice of Baloch Missing Persons has closed down its protest camp for the first time in a decade after receiving assurances from the chief minister. The PTI’s six-point agreement with the Balochistan National Party-Mengal also helped in the recovery of these persons.

Also read: No progress made on Balochistan component of CPEC’s western route

The 331 kilometre-long Zhob-Quetta road project, which is part of CPEC’s western route, had been reflected in the Public Sector Development Program (PSDP) since 2016 but no actual progress was made. The project wasn’t even presented to the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (ECNEC) for approval by the National Highway Authority all these years.

After a delay of over three years, Prime Minister Imran Khan performed the road's ground breaking in March 2019, thanks to vigorous advocacy by the chief minister and the military leadership of the province. The project was approved by the ECNEC and Rs8 billion have been allocated for it in the current PSDP. If completed, the road will be the first-ever dual carriageway in Balochistan.

Way forward

The PTI’s ability to implement its agenda in Balochistan will depend on how it bargains with the military and the Bap's influential tribal/political leaders. The military’s growing influence and power, and reluctance to initiate dialogue with the Baloch armed groups, is likely to be the biggest hurdle in the way of peace and prosperity in the province.

If the ruling party is really serious about promoting inclusive growth and development in Balochistan, it should address the political and economic constraints holding the province back, rather than engaging in deals and bargains with the province's military and civilian elites.

In this regard, the biggest constraint is the country's majoritarian federal system, which makes Balochistan the least rewarding constituency for political parties seeking power at the centre. It offers little or no incentive to these parties to care about Balochistan.

On the same topic: Why Pakistan needs proportional representation

This explains primarily why successive governments in Islamabad have tended to remain indifferent about Balochistan. The senate, which was supposed to be the majority-constraining institution, has been ineffective in enabling smaller provinces to counter the policies or legislation that may impinge upon their rights.

The federal design needs to be altered to enable Balochistan to block any legislation that may harm it and to incentivise state-wide parties to take serious interest in the province. The latter is likely to encourage more political competition and bring technical expertise and experience to Balochistan. This can be best achieved by enhancing the senate's powers and changing the method of its elections.

A powerful senate is essential to realising the two fundamental federal principles of shared and self rule. The senate should be given co-equal powers with the national assembly in both financial and non-financial matters, including money bills, high-level executive appointments, ratification of treaties and other matters effecting the federation.

Moreover, the current indirect elections should be replaced by direct elections of senators by the people of each province through proportional representation. These reforms are likely to go a long way towards making Pakistan a strong and united country.

Illustration by Mushba Said

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