A Baloch nationalist leader who once was jailed on treason charges has now emerged as possibly the last hope for bringing an end to the festering crisis in Pakistan's western Balochistan province, as the country approaches landmark elections.
Akhtar Mengal had lived in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London since his release from prison in 2008. Giving up hope of achieving democratic rights for his province within the framework of the Pakistani federation, he had called for an "amicable divorce" from the state.
In a dramatic turnaround, however, Mengal has now returned home to lead his party, the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) in the coming elections, the outcome of which will be critical for his own - as well as the province's - political future.
A dangerous crucible of tribal, ethnic and sectarian conflicts, Balochistan, the country's largest province by area, has been the centre of a separatist insurgency for almost a decade. Although the military has managed to contain the rebellion through brute force, it has not mitigated the alienation of the ethnic Baloch population.
Thousands of people have been killed in the bloody strife, and hundreds of others are on the list of "missing persons" - people who are believed to be in the custody of Pakistani intelligence agencies. The ruthless use of force has driven many young Baloch men into the folds of insurgent groups.
Most Baloch nationalist parties, including the BNP-M, had boycotted the general elections in 2008 in protest against military operations, extrajudicial killings and the illegal detention of political activists. Their absence allowed tribal leaders who were more pro-establishment to dominate an election whose credibility remains questionable. The province has increasingly descended into lawlessness, with the erosion of state authority and the control of security forces over vast swathes of area remaining no more than tentative.
It will be challenging for the nationalist parties to regain lost political ground, after being disconnected from their constituencies for so long. Many of their leaders and activists had fled their homes due to threats from security agencies, as well as from separatist forces. These party workers and organisers have only begun to return to their homes after the announcement that their parties would be taking part in the elections.
While the decision of nationalist groups to return to the democratic course may have lent greater legitimacy to the coming elections, it also has dangerously polarised the politics of the province. It has sharpened the divide between those nationalists who seek autonomy for the province within the framework of the Pakistani federation and the separatist armed groups fighting for complete independence.
Rejecting the elections as being a means to strengthen the Pakistani state's control over Balochistan, various insurgent groups who have now united under the banner of the Balochistan National Front have called for a province-wide shutdown strike from May 5 to polling day on May 11.
In the wake of that call, the atmosphere across the province in the run-up to the polls remains tense. Candidates cannot campaign in certain areas, for fear of being targeted by the separatists.
The battle in Balochistan between moderates and radical nationalists has divided several of the hugely influential tribal families, too. While Akhtar Mengal has returned to the fold of electoral politics, Javed Mengal, his elder brother, has also returned from self-imposed exile to join the armed separatists. Another faction of the Mengal tribe, led by Shafiq Mengal, is believed to be spearheading one of the armed militias reportedly supported by Pakistani military intelligence in an attempt to counter the armed separatists. These groups, referred to as "death squads" by residents of Balochistan, have also allegedly been responsible for the killing of members of nationalist parties.
The Mengal tribe is not atypical in this respect. Harbiyar Marri is the leader of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the most powerful armed separatist group, but his brother, Changez Marri, will be standing for election to the National Assembly. The Bugtis, another similarly influential tribe, also has members on both sides of the separatist debate.
It remains to be seen who will win the battle at the polls - or, indeed, if the polls will even be allowed to occur. An electoral victory for Akhtar Mengal's BNP-M and other nationalist parties could create some space for the Pakistani state to address the grievances of the Baloch, and bring them back to the fold. After that, it will be a question of how groups such as the BLA will respond to the nationalists being in power.
Source: Al Jazeera