With a little over a month remaining until general elections on Feb. 8, Balochistan’s politics are once more undergoing a transition, as the establishment-backed Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) sees its ranks decimated by defections to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
The restive province, recently in the headlines for a sit-in of Baloch protesters in Islamabad against extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, has long fielded candidates deemed pro-establishment, especially after the launch of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Nationalists comprise the second-largest group, seeking due rights of the Baloch, though their aspirations are rarely fulfilled.
With just 14.89 million people, Balochistan also suffers as the smallest province by population, even though it is the largest by land mass. Due to its small numbers, it has just 17 seats in the National Assembly—14 general and 3 reserved for women—encouraging aspirants to align with major political parties to secure a maximum share from the center, resulting in the formation of successive coalition provincial governments.
“We have hardly seen any party winning with majority in the provincial assembly, rather it has usually been a coalition of different political parties,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, head of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT). “Right now, political parties with different ideologies are trying to be onboard with the party which they believe is going make a government in the center,” he told the Standard, explaining the recent slew of defections to the PPP and PMLN.
This, he suggested, meant BAP would cease to exist as a political entity before too long. “BAP formed in 2018 was sort of a convenient kind of set up to serve the purpose for a certain period of time,” he said, adding its primary purpose was to dent the PMLN’s electoral chances in the National Assembly and the Senate. “Likewise, this time around, the purpose is to not let the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) win elections,” he said, explaining this was why there had been no defections to the embattled party.
“Disgruntled factions from BAP joining the PMLN and the PPP, and even the JUIP [Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Pakistan] are acceptable to the military establishment. It won’t be wrong to say that every political party is trying to take advantage of the situation,” he added.
BAP President Khalid Magsi acknowledges the impact of the defections, but notes the PPP and PMLN should not forget the role played by his party in shoring up the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)-led coalition after the ouster of Imran Khan. Refusing to directly accuse either party of having the support of the military establishment, he nonetheless maintained that the establishment holds sway across the country, not just in Balochistan.
Push for power
Since PMLN leader Nawaz Sharif welcomed nearly two dozen politicians from across Balochistan into his party’s fold last year, the party maintains it is best-positioned to secure a majority in the province on the back of 18-20 electables. “We have the strength of around 20 electables and are expected to win 25 provincial assembly seats if not more than that from the province,” claimed PMLN Balochistan President Jaffar Khan Mandokhel of the 65-member provincial assembly, comprising 51 general seats, 11 reserved for women and 3 for non-Muslims. “Around 3 seats will be from Quetta, while other seats will be from other areas like Pashtun areas and Nasirabad,” he added.
Stressing the electables were not “new” to the PMLN, he claimed the party was now their best chance for victory in the polls given the prevailing political scenario.
The PPP, however, believes no party would secure a commanding majority and the next Balochistan government would come about through a coalition. The party has also seen several new entrants in recent months, including former interim interior minister Sarfraz Bugti who joined the party a few days after resigning from his post. Provincial President Mir Jamali told the Standard that he hoped for free and fair polls, with equal participation of all parties, as any elections marred by political engineering would boost instability in an area that cannot afford any further turmoil.
All parties, he opined, would get shares in accordance with their political worth, adding the aspirations of all elected candidates should be upheld to validate the election process.
A third claimant of electoral victory is the JUIP, whose chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has repeatedly voiced concerns over the voter turnout amidst severe winter conditions in the northern areas of Balochistan. “We have substantial electoral support in the Pashtun areas and Baloch areas are also favoring the JUIP as big tribal bigwigs like Raees Aslam Raisani and other electables have voiced their support,” claimed party spokesperson Aslam Ghauri.
Rejecting the view that the PMLN or PPP could secure majorities, he maintained the JUIP had never compromised on its ideology and this attracted voters to its candidates. “The PMLN is a party whose leader runs away whenever there is hard time and comes back after a deal with the military,” he alleged, maintaining the JUIP’s workers had demanded their rights on the roads. “We are expecting around 25 seats in the provincial assembly and 5 seats in the NA [from Balochistan],” he claimed.
With jockeying for power at a peak, independent analyst Shahzada Zulfiqar says political winds in the province have shifted rapidly in the past two months. Validating the PMLN’s view it would secure a lion’s share of seats after elections after the induction of around two-dozen influential electables, he said the PPP’s position could put up a good fight. Following the inclusion of Bugti and his Domki tribe, as well as indications former chief minister Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo is interested in joining the PPP, he said its chances of leading the eventual coalition government were growing brighter.
“Some inner circles in the power corridors are of the view that the PPP has reached an understanding with the establishment that it would form governments in Sindh and Balochistan while the PMLN would make government in Punjab and center while some coalition set-up will take place in KP,” he claimed. PILDAT’s Mehboob was less certain, but said any party that takes the majority would nonetheless need the support of the JUIP, National Party and Pakhtoonkhawa Milli Awami Party to form the provincial government.
The belief in the wisdom of “inner circles,” however, points to the key issue concerning general elections nationwide: that of political engineering. Former federal minister Yar Muhammed Rind, contesting the polls as an independent candidate, claims the scale is worse than ever before. “If elections are held they are going to be the worst-ever elections in the history of Balochistan, which may give rise to a political catastrophe,” he warned.