Pakistan is going to hold crucial general elections on Feb. 8
– Violence has claimed over three dozen lives in northwestern and southwestern Pakistan in recent days
– Government officials say they are taking all possible measures and will host peaceful elections ‘at any cost’
QUETTA, Balochistan, Pakistan
As millions gear up for the high-stakes Feb. 8 elections in Pakistan, campaigning in some parts of the country has been muted at best.
The shadow of security threats remains particularly dark in areas like the southwestern Balochistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provinces.
Early on Monday, KP saw the latest in an ongoing streak of militant attacks ahead of the polls, as a group of around 30 heavily-armed militants overran a police station in the city of Dera Ismail Khan.
Unlike the northeastern Punjab and southern Sindh provinces, where public rallies and gatherings are in full swing, Balochistan, the country’s largest province in terms of land, is severely lacking the traditional election fervor.
Political parties are avoiding holding rallies and corner meetings
The province, however, is the smallest in terms of population, and has only 16 National Assembly seats out of the 266 total direct seats up for grabs.
Political parties are avoiding holding rallies and corner meetings on the heels of escalating violence that has already claimed over three dozen lives across the province over the past week.
Suspected militants have targeted several election offices across Balochistan, killing a local politician and injuring over a dozen activists of different political parties in the provincial capital Quetta and other districts in recent days.
Also read: Pakistan’s Electoral Wonderland: Should I Vote for the Magician, the Illusionist, Or the Juggler?
A government advisory has warned candidates to avoid “unnecessary movement” in the coming days, saying that suicide bombers may target rallies and public gatherings across Balochistan.
“Political activities are very low in Balochistan this time compared to the 2018 elections. It’s all because of the security threats. Even candidates are looking for alternate ways to reach out to voters,” Zafar Baloch, a Quetta-based political commentator, told Anadolu.
Only a couple of parties, according to Baloch, dared to hold public rallies in Quetta, while a majority of candidates are concentrating on closed-door meetings and social media tools.
“Both candidates and voters are scared because of the escalating violence and security threats,” he said.
“I think we will see a low turnout of voters this time.”
Balochistan, which touches neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, is strategically important due to its rich copper, zinc and natural gas reserves.
The province is also a key route of the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which aims to connect China’s strategically important northwestern Xinjiang province to Balochistan’s Gwadar port through a network of roads, railways, and pipelines for cargo, oil, and gas transportation.
The region has long been facing a low-intensity rebellion from Baloch separatists, who claim the province was “forcibly” incorporated into Pakistan in 1947, following the end of British colonial rule in United India.
Border areas more vulnerable
Rehan Zeb Khan, a young candidate from KP’s Bajaur tribal district, was gunned down by unknown assailants while campaigning last week.
Three other people were also injured in the shooting.
The slain candidate was affiliated with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Bajaur, which sits on the Pak-Afghan border, has long been beset with violence.
Over 60 people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of a rally organized by mainstream religiopolitical party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) last year.
Zahoor Buledi, a candidate for the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), escaped a hand grenade attack in Balochistan’s coastal district of Turbat, which has forced him to take all extra precautions.
“Security challenges are no doubt huge, particularly in Balochistan,” Buledi told Anadolu by telephone.
“I have been attacked, our workers are being attacked and threatened, but we will not give in,” he added.
Buledi has already asked his supporters and party activists not to canvass in large groups, especially in the troubled areas.
In another incident, a local leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), a nationalist political party, was gunned down in an attack on an election office in Balochistan’s Chaman district, which also borders Afghanistan.
Another party worker was also injured in the attack that took place last week.
Peaceful elections ‘at any cost’
Pakistan has seen an uptick in terrorism incidents, mainly in border areas, since the Afghan Taliban recaptured Kabul in August 2021.
Islamabad accuses “Afghanistan-based” militants of being involved in the recent attacks, a charge Kabul denies.
Jan Achakzai, the caretaker information minister in Balochistan’s provincial government, said law enforcement agencies are taking “all possible” measures to thwart any attempt to sabotage the elections, especially on polling day.
At a press conference in Quetta, Achakzai said internet service at “sensitive” polling stations in several districts of the province will be temporarily suspended.
He asserted that “peaceful elections are the government’s prime responsibility and target, which will be done at any cost.”
“The recent attacks have compelled candidates and politicians to further beef up their security,” Imtiaz Hussein, a Peshawar-based political analyst, told Anadolu.
He said candidates are avoiding big rallies or open-air gatherings, aside from restricting their movements throughout KP.
Intelligence agencies have warned that candidates of parties like the JUI and ANP could be the main targets in terror attacks.
Aamir Latif is a Karachi-based senior journalist. He represents Anadolu, a Turkish news agency
Courtesy: Anadolu Agency (Posted on 05.02.2024)