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Free polls in Balochistan

April 15, 2013

There’s been a lot of talk about free and fair polls. With elections being held for the first time in Pakistan after a smooth end to a full five-year tenure of a civilian government, all eyes are set on ensuring that the polls are deemed transparent.

It goes without saying that this concern extends in particular to Balochistan. Many political observers have said that if elections in the troubled province are not held in a free and fair manner, then that would cast doubt on the entire exercise as a whole.

In this regard, some positive steps have been taken. Last week, former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif admitted that the dismissal of the Akhtar Mengal-led government in 1998 was a serious error. Also, caretaker Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso repeatedly said that the people of his province (he also happens to hail from Balochistan) want to participate and practice their right to vote.

Furthermore, the decision of nationalist parties active in Balochistan, including Balochistan National Party (Mengal) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, to field candidates this time around shows that despite all the troubles plaguing the province, many are willing to see where electoral participation takes them.

The army too has been at some pains to dispel any impression that it would meddle in anyway in elections in Balochistan, with the military chief making a rare public statement in this regard.

At the same, there have been some troubling signs.

‘Kill and dump’ activities, ‘missing’ persons, kidnappings for ransom, targeted killings and sectarian violence continue to be a part and parcel of the routine for those living in Balochistan. In the meanwhile, as Mengal and company reach out, separatist outfits are adamant in denying the legitimacy of the polls. The caretaker prime minister may shout himself hoarse warning them to let preparations for the elections continue unabated, but the effectiveness of his words can only be tested with time.

Many observers have a number of questions on their mind – what are the chances that people will be able to practice their right to vote without facing the wrath of either separatist or religious militant groups? Given the troubles in the province, what are the chances that the voter turnout will not be unusually low? How does one ensure the security of those parties which have nominated candidates? And what concrete measures can be taken, beyond the usual rhetoric, of reaching out to those voters living in Balochistan who may have lost faith in the democratic process?