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Go vote, no vote

reposted from: http://nation.com.pk/daily/feb-2008/13/columns3.php, Source: The Nation, Feb 13, 2008

For more article and interviews by Baloch leader Sanaullah Baloch, visit his website.

SENATOR SANAULLAH BALOCH

Pakistan is divided on polls, some parties believe that change is possible through vote; but some quality people think that taking part in elections under current conditions and regime will further result in more political suffocation.

Supporters and contenders of February 18 polls are nervous, there poll campaigns are limited and in majority cases chill. They are unable to campaign freely and create an atmosphere of popular participation.

However, APDM's polls boycotting parties seem more confident and in action to stop people from voting. Government crackdown against APDM's leaders and workers in Balochistan and Sindh is a clear sign of the government's frustration that, no vote slogan is more popular and getting momentum in unhappy provinces then go vote rhetoric.

Following the APDM decision, Baloch and Pushtoon nationalist parties are boycotting the upcoming elections in Balochistan. No doubt, moderate, literate, and student groups are affiliated with the poll boycotting parties.

The government is not justified to stop, intimidate or arrest those who are for or against the polls. Peaceful political campaign is the constitutional right of every citizen. The act of voting in Pakistan is not compulsory it's voluntary; however some countries, such as Australia , Belgium and Brazil , have compulsory voting systems. Stopping popular parties from anti-poll campaign is also an act of election rigging.

Boycotting parties in Balochistan are voicing serious concerns in support of their decision of no vote; these issues include central government hostilities, military operation, killings, displacements and mass arrests of nationalist activists. Their boycott will certainly give the government an opportunity to re-install a pro-military religious government in the province to continue its unpopular policies.

Four major nationalist parties like, Balochistan National Party, Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, National Party (NP) and Jamoori Watan Party (JWP), believe that the "boycott weapon" might prove to be effective against dictatorship and autocracy. They claim that the on-going military operation has worsened the situation in Balochistan and was now taking a critical turn after the assassination of Baloch nationalist leaders like Akbar Khan Bugti and Balach Marri. The also allege that thousands of Baloch political activists including Baloch leader like Sardar Akhter Mengal had been put behind bars and were being tortured, while many others have disappeared. The core issue is not just boycotting election but it's more alarming that mistrust and dissatisfaction on the political system is rising. Parties and political representatives are loosing political faith and they compelled to believe that regime policies will continue to benefit only the majority province.

The elections are not boycotted for first time; in 1977 political parties under the umbrella of PNA boycotted the general elections because of military operation and detention of a majority of Baloch leaders. Due to the boycott, military operation and incarceration of Baloch-Pushtoon leaders, PPP managed to win all Balochistan Assembly seats.

In 1970 elections, which claimed to be Pakistan's only free and fair polls, the moderate Baloch nationalist won three out of four national assembly places and eight in provincial assembly out of twenty. Although five members were elected as independent candidates but a majority were supported by nationalists. JUI was able to win only two seats in 1970 elections from Balochistan . The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) did well in Punjab and Sindh but failed to win a single national and provincial seat in Balochistan.

In 1988, Baloch nationalists won the majority seats in Baloch populated constituencies. JUI and other parties managed to win seats from Pushtoon dominated areas of the province. Nawab Akbar Bugti was appointed chief minister. His unpleasant relations with Benazir Bhutto 's led central government made it difficult to initiate effective economic activity in the province to uplift the socio-economic condition of impoverished masses.

In 1990, once again Nawab Bugti's JWP and other Baloch nationalist won the majority seats in the province but their efforts to form a provincial government was hampered by the intelligence agencies. In 1993, Baloch nationalists suffered heavy election losses due to election manipulation by the agencies and some internal fractions.

In 1997, Balochistan National Party formed by veteran Baloch Nationalist Sardar Atthullah Mengal secured quite a reasonable portion of seats in the Balochistan Assembly and formed a coalition government in province. But soon after the May 1998, nuclear test and BNP's opposition to the nuclear trial resulted in the removal of Akhter Mengal's government. In 2002, Musharraf's government successfully managed to keep the Baloch nationalists out of the assemblies through massive rigging and manipulation. This helped the pro-Taliban MMA to occupy Balochistan's election scene. This systematic and planned exclusion of Baloch moderate parties resulted into Islamabad-Baloch conflict.

Moreover, the last four years of intense military operation in Balochistan resulted in the killing of politically valuable Baloch leader, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The former chief minister and Balochistan National Party President Sardar Akhter Mengal's prolong and unjust detention has also disappointed the Baloch electorate. In such a state of affairs it's not complex to forecast that an inexperienced government supported rogue element will dominate Balochistan's election scene. In 2008, elections will further push away moderate Baloch and Pushtoon political forces from the centre and unrest will continue to grip the region.

July 2007, report of International Crisis Group regarding "Elections, Democracy and Stability in Pakistan " expressed concern over the regime's support towards religious groups in Balochistan and argued that "Now, as before, Musharraf has little choice but to support the Islamist parties to counter his moderate opposition. The pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)'s help is essential to him, particularly in Balochistan, where the staunchly anti-military Baloch nationalist parties would likely win a free and fair poll. In the national parliament too, Musharraf would need the Islamists' support to get renewed approval of his dual hats. If the Islamist parties gain five more years of power in Balochistan and Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), their militant allies - Pakistani, Afghan and transnational - will benefit, and the moderate parties, which still retain the support of the vast majority of the population, will lose."

Political parties in Balochistan also raised their concerns towards central and provincial caretaker governments and described them as biased and alleged that a "master plan" had been prepared to rig the election and "brothers and sisters" of the caretakers minister in the province are going to "win" the elections. They claim that how free and fair general elections are possible when twenty-three out of twenty-eight district nazims belong to the Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Balochistan National Party (BNP-pro-government). There are also visible evidences that provincial caretaker cabinet members close family associates are contesting from several constituencies and likely to get elected due to profound influence of provincial administration.

In their poll boycott rallies APDM leaders are vocally convincing the gatherings and telling the masses that "how free, fair and transparent elections could take place in a country where political parties are prohibited from campaigning, military and agencies visibly enforce an atmosphere of intimidation; where top Baloch representatives have been persecuted on ethnic basis, they have been jailed for years without any transparent judicial trials, political activists have been detained for months under the pretext of maintaining of public order."

No doubt, the rhetoric of "free, fair and transparent" election without ensuring the fundamental human rights will remain a meaningless exercise. 
Although, the government seems determined to hold elections in the province, but turn out in province will be low and legitimacy of polls will remain questionable. In future, any provincial government in volatile province would not be in a position to function and deliver, as it will lack mandate from the people.
The nationalist parties have been a strong mass support and they have been able in past to paralyse the provincial government at a number of occasions.