LONDON -- As the buzz begins to build ahead of Pakistan's parliamentary elections, expected sometime in May, politicians in that country's restive Balochistan Province are a divided bunch.
What to do when faced with warnings from one side to boycott the polls in a sign of solidarity with the Baluch independence movement, and pressure from the other side to take the opportunity to rejoin the provincial and central governments after a five-year absence?
Hasil Bizenjo, vice president of the moderate National Party, is ready to begin campaigning for the elections. He believes the polls will successfully be held province-wide despite threats from hard-core separatists to target Baluch leaders who participate.
"When they threaten to sabotage the elections, that is an undemocratic process in itself," Bizenjo says. "If you want the people of Balochistan to boycott the elections, you should convince them through peaceful means. If you are threatening them with violence and murder, it means the people are not with you. Even if the separatists try very hard, they can only stop the elections in a couple of constituencies."
Baluchis make up a majority in the southwestern province of 9 million, which has seen sustained violence between government troops and Baluch separatists over the last decade.
For many involved in Baluchistan's political scene, however, threats by hard-line separatists are not the main consideration. For them, the military's harsh crackdown on residents of the province is their main reason for boycotting the polls.
Naseer Dashti, an exiled Balochi author affiliated with the pro-autonomy Balochistan National Party, says that his party is still debating whether to participate in the elections and that a key question is whether the military will allow free elections or manipulate the vote. The party boycotted the last general elections, in 2008.
Many members of the Balochistan National Party have been assassinated since the onset of the current insurgency in 2004. Many more members of the party and hundreds of suspected separatists have disappeared. Human rights watchdogs have alleged that the missing are the victims of "enforced disappearances" carried out by the military and its intelligence services.
Dashti says his party could be swayed to participate in the polls if Islamabad withdrew its security forces from main population centers, freed disappeared persons, and offered guarantees of free and fair elections.
"The parliament can be a tool for the Baluch people to express their opinions and grievances. But it always depends on the military whether they will allow our people to participate in the elections or whether they are allowed to be successful," Dashti says. "It is a war zone, and the military is entrenched in every fabric of our society. So it is not up to us, it is up to the military establishment."
There are those, however, who see no role for Baluchis in Pakistani politics.
"I believe parliamentary politics is a failed practice. We have done it in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, and parliamentary politics proved to be a failed practice," says Hamal Haider Baloch, spokesman for the separatist Baluch National Movement. "In Balochistan, if you [contest] elections and go to their institutions, still you will not get anything from the state because the state has adopted the policy to exploit and not to give."
The election campaign will formally begin and a date will be set for the polls set after the government and opposition agree on a caretaker government, a process that is expected to culminate in mid-March.