Pakistani authorities are pulling out the stops to ensure peaceful polls in the restive province of Balochistan, which has at least two leaders of political parties arrayed against their brothers in insurgent groups that are opposed to the landmark general election.
Over 2,800 of the 3,794 polling stations in Balochistan have been classified as “very sensitive” and more than 98,600 security personnel will be deployed for securing the May 11 general election that will mark the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history.
Akbar Durrani, the Home Secretary of Balochistan, told a visiting group of foreign journalists that the administration was dealing with several issues while handling security for the polls, including threats from insurgent and terrorist groups and intense tribal rivalries.
Among the insurgent groups opposed to the polls is the Lashkar-e-Balochistan led by Javed Mengal, the son of Sardar Ataullah Mengal.
However, Javed’s brother Akhtar Mengal, a former Chief Minister of the province, recently returned to Pakistan from years in self-exile to lead his faction of the Balochistan National Party in the polls.
And while senior PML-N leader Changez Marri is among those contesting the polls, his brother Hyrbyair Marri heads the Baloch Liberation Army, one of the insurgent groups that officials describe as a major threat to the election process.
Officials said the tribal rivalries and divisions reflected the complex political scenario in Balochistan, which accounts for almost half of Pakistan’s territory but has only 3.3 million of the total electorate of over 80 million voters.
There have been 18 incidents of violence across the province since April 1, including attacks with improvised explosive devices and grenades, said Quetta police chief Mir Zubair Mehmood said.
The most devastating attack was one that targeted senior PML-N leader Sanaullah Zehri, killing his son, brother and nephew.
Another attack in Jhal Magsi area killed a candidate, Mehmood said. “But we have carried out targeted operations and are determined not to let anyone sabotage the polls,” he said.
Nawab Ghaus Baksh Barozai, caretaker Chief Minister of Balochistan, claimed his biggest success had been to convince nationalist parties that boycotted the last polls in 2008 to join the electoral race this time round.
“But that is not the end, we have go forward and move from our tribal systems to a democratic order,” he said.
Elections in Balochistan have traditionally been marked by low turnouts, and the figure for the 2008 polls was only 30.9 per cent.
Local pundits believe the numbers for next week’s general election could be even lower.
“The Government is determined to hold the polls and has deployed a lot of security forces, including the Army. The separatists have made up their minds to oppose the election to send out a message to the world that the situation is not normal,” said Shahzada Zulfiqar, a senior journalist.
“The turnout this time could be as low as 10 to 12 per cent,” he said.
Other commentators too believe that threats of violence could keep a majority of voters away from polling stations on May 11.