The facade of democracy: How mainstream parties ensure Balochistan’s political stagnation

What is most unfortunate is that Balochistan remains underdeveloped because these electables appear to show little concern for the province and its people.
Published November 20, 2023

Every time Balochistan finds mention on the airwaves, it is almost always for the wrong reasons. Take last week for example, when it made the headlines owing to a dramatic shift in loyalty among the province’s influential political figures.

On November 14, a group of 29 influential politicians — colloquially referred to as ‘electables’ — signalled their intention to join the PML-N during the party leader, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Quetta. Prominent among them were former chief minister Jam Kamal Khan, former federal minister Mir Dostain Domaki, former MNA Khan Mohammad Jamali, and former provincial minister for communication and works, Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran.

While the development may have come as a surprise to many, it isn’t really out of the ordinary — Balochistan’s electables have a long history of aligning themselves with the rising sun.

Where it all began

The first provincial assembly of Balochistan was established on March 30, 1970, through a presidential order following the dissolution of the One Unit scheme — the amalgamation of all provinces in West Pakistan into a single unit — and the declaration of Balochistan as a separate province.

The inaugural session of the Balochistan Assembly took place on May 2, 1972, at the Shahi Jirga Hall (Town Hall) in Quetta. During this session, Muhammad Khan Barozai and Molvi Shams-ud-Din were elected as speaker and deputy speaker, while Sardar Attaullah Mengal was elected as the first chief minister under the National Awami Party (NAP) government.

Just nine months later, however, President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto dismissed the NAP-led provincial government on flimsy charges in February 1973, in an attempt to bring the province under his control. At the time, the NAP government was dominated by ethno-nationalists who had refused to ally with Bhutto’s ruling federal party — the PPP — a big perceived threat to Bhutto. After ousting the provincial NAP government, he appointed Jam Ghulam Qadir Khan as the new chief minister in 1973.

What makes Jam Ghulam Qadir Khan of Lasbela stand out among other electables and feudal lords of Balochistan is that he has provided three generations of chief ministers to the province. Initially, in 1973, he became chief minister with the PPP’s support, followed by his independent stint in 1985, supported by Gen Ziaul Haq.

In 2002, his son Jam Muhammad Yusuf became Balochistan’s 15th chief minister, backed by the PML-Q. In 2018, Yusuf’s son, Jam Kamal, became the chief minister with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) backing.

Over the years, the Jams of Lasbela have been a part of almost all political parties or rulers that have been in power at the centre, whether it be the PPP, the dictator Ziaul Haq, the PML-Q, the PML-N, or the PTI.

Playing favourites

Since the 1970s, Balochistan has witnessed 11 elections. During this time, the province has been governed by 24 elected and unelected chief ministers, the majority of whom have endeavoured to align themselves with the federal government — with the notable exceptions of Nawab Akbar Bugti’s government (1989-1990) and Akhtar Mengal’s government (1997-1998). Many of them have failed to complete their tenures for one reason or another.

This may be one of the many reasons why Balochistan lags behind today, despite its abundant mineral resources and strategic location. Important economic decisions related to the southwestern province are made all the way in Islamabad because the supposed representatives of the people would rather stay in favour with the capital than do their job — represent the people of the province.

At the same time, corruption is perceived to be rampant in the province’s power corridors even as the law and order situation continues to deteriorate. This also reinforces the widely-held belief in other parts of the country that Balochistan’s Nawabs and Sardars are responsible for all the challenges faced by the province today.

While it isn’t all that simple, there is some truth to this notion. Of the 24 chief ministers of Balochistan, only Quddus Bizenjo of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and Dr Abdul Malik Baloch of the National Party stand out as exceptions who do not come from dynastic or feudal backgrounds.

However, even Bizenjo and Baloch received backing from federal ruling parties to form their respective governments at the provincial level. The remaining chief ministers have all come from families of feudal lords or tribal chieftains.

What is most unfortunate is that Balochistan remains underdeveloped because these electable feudal lords appear to show little concern for the province and its people. However, as their popularity wanes, either the establishment or mainstream political parties, particularly the PPP and, more recently, the PML-N and the PTI, breathe new life into their political careers.

This same phenomenon was on display last week in Quetta once again in their meeting with Nawaz Sharif. Ironically, a majority of the 29 electables were part of the PML-N government between 2013-2018. The key question here is whether the PML-N can now secure a more inclusive support base and a decisive victory compared to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the PPP, as the latter simultaneously intensify efforts to shape the future of Balochistan’s politics.

Several electables have already switched loyalties to the PPP and JUI-F, including former chief minister Nawab Aslam Raisani who joined the JUI-F, and Quddus Bizenjo who is currently in talks with the PPP. The establishment’s ‘favourite son’, the BAP, which was formed by a group of electables has effectively been dismantled and is now divided between the PML-N and the PPP.

But will Balochistan’s fortunes change with these electable joining mainstream political parties?

Not a chance.

Truth behind the ‘truth’

It is yet to be seen who will form the next provincial government in Balochistan, but with these electables remaining in power, one thing is unfortunately certain: the people of Balochistan will find no respite, not even a temporary one.

Many of the political figures who have now joined Nawaz’s party — Jam Kamal, Mir Dostain Domki, and Asim Kurd Galo — were part of the PML-N government until 2018. When the Supreme Court disqualified the PML-N supremo in July 2017, these electables started switching loyalties, weakening the PML-N’s provincial government in Balochistan. Jam Kamal, whose support Nawaz seeks today, was the minister of state for petroleum and natural resources during the PML-N’s previous tenure. He, along with Khalid Magsi and Mir Dostain Domki, resigned from the PML-N in 2018 and blamed the party for creating a “crisis” in Balochistan.

Soon after, Jam Kamal toppled the PML-N’s provincial government and dismantled the party’s structure at the provincial level, leading to the formation of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). Even after all this, the PML-N seems to have leant no lessons from its past experiences — or perhaps it is willing to ignore them for temporary gain.

Among other notable figures who met Nawaz in Quetta was Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani. Sanjrani, once an ally of Imran Khan, survived a no-confidence vote in August 2019. At the time, the PML-N and its allies claimed he was re-elected due to political interference by the establishment. Hasil Bizenjo, the opposition candidate for Senate chairman, blamed his and the opposition’s loss to secret agencies. Despite the 11-party opposition alliance having a majority in the Upper House, Sanjrani was re-elected as Chairman of the Senate in 2021.

Another name from the group that stands out is that of Abdul Rehman Khetran, a former provincial minister from the impoverished Barkhan district. Khetran first made headlines in the national press in 2006 when the Supreme Court ordered police to arrest and produce him before it over his involvement in the alleged forced marriages of two minor girls, their abduction, and for running a private jail. Then in January 2014, Balochistan Police and the Anti-Terrorist Force raided his private jail and recovered seven people.

In February this year, a large crowd took to the streets in Quetta against Khetran, alleging his involvement in the killing of a woman and two others who were reportedly held in his private jail. Despite serious accusations, Khetran denied any role in the murder. Following widespread protests, Khetran was arrested for his alleged involvement in the triple murder, but was later released.

In July, a Dawn investigation helped shed light on the plight of several people illegally detained in Khetran’s private jails. The report itself quoted a number of people who had been kidnapped and experienced the horrors of being detained in them for months.

Since the 1990s, Sardar Khetran has been part of the PML-N, the PML-Q, the JUI- F, and BAP. In each of these parties, he has held key portfolios, including having served as provincial minister for education, science and technology, Communication and Works (C&W), spokesperson for the Balochistan government, and multiple terms as a member of the Balochistan Assembly.

Despite having held important portfolios and being part of every government since the 1990s, Barkhan district suffers from acute poverty and underdevelopment. According to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement (PSLM) 2019-20 data, Barkhan shows a notably low literacy rate compared to other districts, with rates at 26 per cent in the 15-years+ population and 36pc in the 10-years+ population of males. Female literacy is even lower, standing at 5pc in the 15-years+ population and 11pc in the 10-years+ population.

The Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), developed by OPHI and UNDP, ranked Barkhan among the poorest regions in Balochistan in its latest report, Pakistan 2025, One Nation-One Vision. The report noted that Killa Abdullah, Harnai, Barkhan, Kohistan, and Ziarat have lagged behind significantly in terms of social development, exhibiting extremely high levels of poverty and deprivation.

Khetran’s son, Sardarzada Inam Shah Khetran, has accused him of deliberately keeping his people poor and Barkhan backward to maintain control. The allegations of crimes against Khetran must not go unexamined, and being a mainstream political party, the PML-N must carefully consider who it is bringing into power.

Where do we go from here?

Between 2018 and 2023, Balochistan was pushed further into the abyss. The province witnessed widespread protests, including a civil rights movement emerging from Gwadar. The small coastal town has been on strike for fundamental civic rights, with similar demonstrations in other parts of the province.

Since 2018, under the rule of these electables, Balochistan has consistently ranked as Pakistan’s second most violence-hit province. In the first half of 2023 alone, Balochistan witnessed a staggering 103 per cent increase in terror attacks, coinciding with a rise in corruption and poor governance.

While the PML-N is currently in a strong position, with the PTI having lost favour with the establishment, there is no pressure on the former to adopt these electables. Their political umbrella organisation, BAP, has already dissipated, but mainstream parties are yet again willing to provide them with oxygen. For a mere four or six MNA seats, these parties risk Balochistan’s future as they give the province back to power-seeking politicians, who instead of providing protection to the people are the ones people need protection from.

Mainstream political parties, particularly the PML-N, should cautiously assess their alliances and the electables they are endorsing for power. The future of Balochistan rests on it.