May issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Despite its hectic efforts, the government could not win over the major political parties in Balochistan. The only parties who hopped on to the Musharraf bandwagon were those whose leaders have been unable to secure even their own seats in the assemblies.

The complete strike in the provincial capital, on the call of the opposition political parties on referendum day, really perturbed both provincial and federal governments. The strike belied the claims of parties allied with President Musharraf that the people would turn out in large numbers to vote for him.

Almost all polling stations in the city precincts, except some in the cantonment and in areas with Persian-speaking Hazaras, wore a deserted look till the afternoon, while vehicular traffic remained thin. However, after the military and civil authorities swung into action, the Nazims were activated to bring in a few thousand voters from their respective areas in Quetta. The administration of the government departments was also directed to ensure the presence of employees for casting their votes.

The process of vote casting was made so easy that any document proving the identity of the voter was acceptable, and even certificates issued by Nazims of the areas, were considered good enough to fill the ballot boxes. In the evening, the polling staff in Quetta were seen allotting more ballots than one to individuals who wished to cast multiple votes.

A group of journalists during their visit to one of the deserted polling stations set up in the T&T Colony girls’ school in the heart of the city, witnessed some 20 ballot papers torn off from the book, lying on the table before the polling staff in the absence of voters. When asked what the papers were doing there, the staff explained that they were waiting for the voters to come and the ballot papers had been torn off from the book in advance. One of them said, “ultimately all these ballots have to be dropped in the ballot boxes.”

The complaints of bogus voting by the people of the King’s party were high at more than one polling station and the turnout much lower than expected. A Naib Nazim of Quetta said, “I waited for the voters to come till afternoon but the polling stations remained deserted. So I took my supporters with me and we took over the ballot books from the polling staff. I started stamping and tearing off the ballots and we did this in all seven polling stations of the area.” Another nazim, from the katchi abadis, told a reporter, “I have been given four books of a hundred ballot papers each, and by 6 p.m. we have completed three books. Inshaallah, within an hour all the books will be used.” Some government employees also proudly stated that they had cast four to five votes each, with the help of the polling staff.

With such irregularities in polling, the Election Commission eventually announced that General Musharraf had received over 2.5 million votes. Considering a scattered population of Balochistan is 6.5 million, the figure is an incredible one. The opposition, comprising some eight political parties including the PPP and PML(N) and three different alliances — ARD, PONAM and Mutahida Majlis Amal — failed to pull together a substantial gathering in the public meeting they arranged two days before the polling day. While they had been agitating against the referendum for a while, the opposition parties then gave a call for a general strike without being sure of the response they would get.

Independent observers estimate numbers at the opposition’s public meeting at not more than a few thousand. The government is reported to have created hurdles in the way of arrangements for the meeting, arresting party leaders, watering the ground a couple of days before the meeting and stopping vehicles at entry points of the city.

General Musharraf and Governor Justice (R) Amin-ul-Mulk Mengal expressed their displeasure over the performance of City Nazim Abdur Rahim Kakar who had assured the strike call would go unheeded and predicted a record turnout at the polling stations.

The government and its agencies were taken aback over the successful strike in Quetta and lack of enthusiasm shown by the people towards the referendum, specially since pre-referendum surveys had suggested a different scenario.

The outcome was unexpected after the mammoth public meeting held by President Musharraf in Quetta, followed by a charged atmosphere in favour of the referendum and the announcement of support one after another by traders, some political parties and government employees associations.

The government spent a huge amount from national resources, using all the resources of the administration, for the Musharraf public meeting and the referendum campaign. Three million rupees had been placed at the disposal of the District Coordination Officer for just the public meeting in Quetta, while over 20 million rupees were allocated for advertisements in the local press for the referendum campaign, besides earmarking millions of rupees for the polling day.

As in other parts of the country, the announcement of General Pervez Musharraf granting some concessions for the common man, farmers, inhabitants of katchi abadis etc. in the shape of development activities in Balochistan had some positive impact.

Justice Mengal also embarked on a whirlwind tour of the province while Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Abdul Qadir, being a local, had earned the goodwill of the local population by addressing development issues, and seeking the support of the tribal chieftains and elders. Provincial ministers also visited the interior of the province for the same purpose.

The political parties supporting the referendum could only help the government in building its image in the media, but their practical support did not amount to much. The leaders of the Tehrik-e-Insaaf, Millat Party, Awami Tehrik, National Awami Party etc. maintained a presence in the press, but none of them were to be seen mobilising voters on the polling day.

The Quaid-e-Azam group of the PML is the only party of the King’s camp that mattered to some extent as far as the referendum was concerned. The group comprises the old faces that used to be seen around General Zia, Junejo and Nawaz Sharif at their peak. Now they are seen in the Musharraf’s camp and will no doubt join his successor. The individuals dominating this group have their own vote bank and tribal influence, but have always been changing their loyalties with the wind. With the backing of the state machinery they stand a good chance of winning their seats in the elections.

In Balochistan, unlike the other provinces, all the Nazims and Naib Nazims from the union council to district government level, barring a few, have been supporters of the policies of the present military government. Even those elected with the help of political parties or local influential personalities have deferred to the government. The Nazims of the Balochistan National Movement worked publicly in their districts for the success of General Pervez Musharraf in the referendum, although BNM head Dr. Abdul Hai Baloch had strongly opposed the referendum from the PONAM platform. The BNM swept the local bodies elections in Makran division and Awaran district and succeeded in bringing in three district Nazims and one Naib Nazim.

The Balochistan National Party (Bizenjo group) dominated by those elements who are keen to jump onto the bandwagon, recently disassociated itself from the opposition parties in an attempt to win concessions from the government for two former ministers Syed Ehsan Shah and Asad Baloch who were facing NAB corruption charges. Mir Yaqub Bizenjo, alias Imam Bheel, a drug baron of Makran, who has been a traditional ally of the BNP, also vowed to work for the success of General Musharraf through front-page advertisement in the newspapers.

Instead of garnering support, the rallying of corrupt elements around him is causing great damage to General Musharraf. A number of such people who had fled abroad or gone underground to avoid their arrest and interrogation in corruption charges have now surfaced, apparently after deals have been struck. Some have been released following plea bargaining.

Mir Jan Mohammad Jamali, a former Chief Minister of Balochistan is one of them. He escaped to Dubai when investigations started against him for misusing 140 million rupees from his secret fund and other alleged financial scams. Coming back to the country a few months ago, he joined the PML-Q and is now one of the pillars of Musharraf’s supporting team in the province.

On the other hand, the government is deprived of the support of the political parties having both street power and a substantial vote bank. They included the Balochistan National Party (Mengal), Pushtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, Jamhoori Watan Party, Jamiat Ulema Islam and Jamaat-e- Islami Pakistan. However, parties like the Balochistan National Movement apparently opposed the referendum in the press, but extended their tacit support to the government. Pushtoonkhwa was the only party that embarked on a mass awareness campaign against the referendum, holding corner meetings despite the ban on political activities. Other political parties confined their opposition to the press, besides holding some public meetings in the interior of the province. While the administration assisted political activities in favour of the referendum, its opponents were denied the same right.

The lawyers’ community in Balochistan was the only segment of society that staged rallies and marched on main roads and through bazaars against the referendum. In retaliation, the government lodged treason cases against them and arrested their leaders, including Ali Ahmad Kurd, President of the Balochistan Bar Association.

These arrests sent a wave of anger among the community who announced they would continue their protest till the withdrawal of these cases and the release of their leaders. The police went a step further by arresting 70 more lawyers after the protest. The lawyers fought back by courting arrest and resorting to a token hunger strike. Ultimately, sanity prevailed on the part of the government. Cases were withdrawn and all the arrested lawyers set free.

The government directed the 1400 councillors of Quetta to get people to participate in General Musharraf’s public meeting, also directing government employees to be present at the meeting. But while there was a show of numbers in the meeting, the resources of the administration could not deliver the desired results on the day of the referendum.

The referendum also cost the government one of the well-reputed and competent judges of the superior courts. Justice Tariq Mahmood, a judge of the Balochistan High Court, quit when as a member of the election commission of Pakistan from Balochistan, he refused to be a part of the referendum process, terming the referendum unconstitutional. The ECP, in an apparent attempt to cover up his resignation, issued a press release saying Justice Mahmood had been withdrawn on the recommendation of the Chief Justice of Balochistan.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).