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Baloch participation: Nationalists contesting polls

March 23, 2013

THE upcoming elections hold some promise for change in Pakistan, but they hold even more promise for things to improve in Balochistan. This is partly because the Balochistan Assembly and government have arguably had the worst track record of any provincial set-up over the last five years; there is not much room to do worse. But it is also because unlike in 2008, nationalist parties appear to have made up their minds to contest this year. The National Party and the Jamhoori Watan Party have made clear their intentions to participate; Balochistan National Party’s Sardar Akhtar Mengal returns to Pakistan next week, and senior leaders have disclosed that the party will contest the polls. Their participation is critical for several reasons.

For one, their politics suggests a greater commitment to and concern for Balochistan and its people, and they have significant vote banks. This raises hopes that an assembly that includes them will not fall to the levels of corruption and indifference that the current one did, or at least that it will enforce checks and balances on such things as the use of funds for development.

Second, with plenty of organisations more hard-line than they are, they remain perhaps the best hope of bridging the gulf between armed insurgents and the state. Given the armed groups’ contempt for the mainstream nationalist parties, which they see as having sold out to the establishment, this will not be an easy task, and enforced disappearances and dumped bodies over the last few years have also affected the outlook of ordinary Baloch in certain areas of the province. But a provincial assembly that includes nationalist parties certainly has a greater chance of success than the current lot of tribal leaders and other provincial lawmakers associated with political parties for whom Balochistan is nowhere near being a priority.

None of this is to say that the nationalist parties will rescue Balochistan from its problems simply by contesting elections and getting more Baloch to vote. For one, some hard-line groups have threatened to disrupt elections, and nationalists participating in polls could be bigger targets than other candidates. Second, they have yet to prove themselves capable of successfully speaking for the people of Balochistan or of negotiating effectively with more hard-line groups. They will also have to prove their ability to govern before they will be taken seriously as political parties. But without their presence in the provincial assembly, the prospects of Baloch concerns being taken seriously look slim.