Quetta: Pakistan's upcoming general election is being billed as a "make or break" event in the troubled but resource-rich southwestern province of Balochistan, where campaigning has been hit hard by threats from militants and separatists.
The northern Pashtun belt of Balochistan is largely peaceful and expected to witness a sizeable turnout when Pakistan goes to the polls on May 11 to choose new national and provincial assemblies, but authorities have put in place extensive security arrangements in the southern Baloch-dominated areas to counter efforts by separatists to disrupt the polling.
"This is a make or break situation. If we have the polls, the electoral and democratic processes and the federal structure will be strengthened," Babar Yaqoob Fateh Muhammad, the Chief Secretary of Balochistan, told a visiting group of foreign journalists today.
Over the past few days, campaign offices of different parties in Quetta have been targeted in grenade attacks and separatists have bombed schools to be used as polling stations.
Separatist groups like the Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army have called for a strike during May 9-11 to prevent voting.
But Chief Secretary Muhammad and provincial police chief Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera are confident that they have put in place adequate measures to protect voters, candidates and election officials.
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 the polls.
About 6,000 soldiers have been put on stand-by to prevent violence on election day.
"Certain candidates did receive threats but they have braved them and resolved to be part of the democratic process. We have the army, the Frontier Corps, quick reaction teams and police. Hopefully we will cross this obstacle," Muhammad said.
Elections in Balochistan - which has only 3.3 million of
the total electorate of over 80 million voters - have traditionally been marked by low turnouts and officials privately acknowledge that they will be satisfied if the turnout on May 11 is about 35 per cent.
Only 30 per cent of the electorate in the province exercised their franchise in 2008.
Both officials and nationalist politicians are united on the point that the success of the electoral process could mark a turning point for Balochistan, which remains the most impoverished province in Pakistan despite its abundant natural resources, including copper, gold, oil and gas.
The polls will provide an opportunity for politicians to forge a "new social contract" with the people and to work for giving Balochistan greater control over its resources, say officials.
"When elected politicians started representing the people and take up their problems, security will automatically improve," said police chief Sukhera.
The Baloch Students Organisation, which is affiliated to the nationalist BNP-M led by Sardar Akhtar Mengal, too believes change can now only come through the ballot and not bullets.
Mengal recently returned to Pakistan after years in self-exile to lead the party in the election though his brother - Lashkar-e-Balochistan chief Javed Mengal - is opposed to the polls.
"The issue of Balochistan is a political issue that cannot be settled through the gun. We are praying that the elections are free and fair because the Baloch people no longer want the politics of the gun," said Munir Jaleeb Baloch, president of the Quetta chapter of the BSO.