Authorities in Pakistan’s insurgency-wracked Baluchistan province have put in place extremely tight security measures to ensure May 11 national elections are held peacefully.
Separatist groups have threatened to disrupt the polls. But the participation of Baluch nationalist parties has led to hopes the vote could bring much needed political stability to the mineral and energy-rich province.
Militants in Pakistan's volatile Baluchistan province have already attacked election-related events. The violence has led to a more subdued campaign season in most of the region. Residents and independent observers expect an all time low turnout.
But authorities are confident that deployment of around 70,000 security forces across the province will ensure the safety of voters and prevent a disruption of the May 11 vote.
"We are providing security to all polling stations and to the people, and it is the resolve of the provincial government to conduct just, free, fair and transparent elections," explains Provincial Home Secretary Akbar Hussain Durrani, who is supervising the security arrangements.
Baluchistan is Pakistan’s biggest, but least populous, province. Despite being the richest of all four provinces in natural resources, its estimated 12 million people are the poorest in the country.
While the rest of Pakistan is benefiting from Baluchistan's mineral and energy wealth, a World Bank report says the southwestern province has the worst economic growth record, the weakest infrastructure and the lowest national socio-economic indicators.
Residents have long complained of being neglected by both the provincial and central governments. The resentment has helped fuel the low-level Baluch insurgency that has long battled the Pakistani state for political autonomy.
"Baluchistan is a typical question of a mismanaged province by our own politicians, by our own administrations," said Wazir Ahmed Jogazai, a senior Baluch politician and a former deputy speaker of the national legislature.
The people in Baluchistan are also opposed to the heavy presence of military forces in their province. Some accuse the Pakistani security forces of using brutal methods to suppress demands for greater political and economic autonomy.
The law and order situation worsened after the Pakistani army's 2006 killing of senior Baluch politician Nawab Akbar Bugti. His death is said to have broadened support for the Baluch fighters seeking independence from Pakistan.
The killing also prompted moderate nationalist parties to boycott Pakistan's 2008 national elections.
End to violence
But after five years on the political sidelines, the parties contesting this year's vote, promise to bring an end to the violence through the ballot.
"Good luck for Pakistani democracy that major nationalist parties of Baluchistan," Zafarullah Khan, the executive director of the non-governmental Center for Civic Education Pakistan, said, "they are contesting elections, they are showing a lot of courage to give electoral process of Pakistan a chance to solve the Baluch question. But their challenge is that certain Baluch separatist, those who don’t find their future in the electrical process, they are posing a lot of challenges for them and restricting their campaign.”
Former army general Talat Masood also agrees that participation of Baluch nationalist parties could go a long way in addressing the problems of their province.
“If they can get back into the political fold I think that will be extremely helpful because that will sooth the passions and will bring them into the political process rather than they remain alienated," he said.
But nationalist leaders such as Jahanzaib Jamaldini have long accused the military establishment of manipulating election results in favor of politicians they have created to counter nationalist forces.
He warns that if those policies are not abandoned the insurgent violence will increase.
“So, what we want is a free and transparent elections, mandate should be respected, trust deficit should be defused then there could be a way out to settle the problems [of Baluchistan]," he said.
Worsening the so-called "trust deficit" between the Pakistani government and the people in Baluchistan are the hundreds of people alleged to have been disappeared in the last several years.
Baluch activist groups blame the army for disappearances and targeted killings. Pakistani authorities reject the allegations and instead blame separatist groups.