QUETTA, Pakistan – The graffiti on walls around this Pakistani provincial capital hold a dire warning ahead of this weekend's national elections, "Voting means death." It's a very real threat: Over recent weeks at least six people have been killed and around 40 wounded in bombings and grenade attacks targeting candidates.
Ethnic Baluch separatists who have waged a bloody insurgency trying to win independence for the vast, sparsely populated province of Baluchistan are seeking to derail the vote with a campaign of violence. In large part, their targets have been fellow Baluch, seen by the separatists as traitors for agreeing to participate in the vote.
"Our houses are not safe. Our workers are not safe. Our leaders are directly targeted every day," said Naimatullah Gichki, a senior member of a Baluch party, the National Party. "We are fighting a war, not an election."
Saturday's election has thrown into sharp relief a question that has divided the country's Baluch ethnic minority: Can the community win their rights at the ballot box or is the only solution a violent campaign to break away from Pakistan?
The Baluch have long been alienated by what they see as exploitation by the central government. Wedged between the borders with Afghanistan and Iran, Baluchistan is rich in oil, natural gas and valuable minerals. But it is Pakistan's poorest province and remains extremely underdeveloped, with residents complaining that resource riches have mainly gone to fill the federal government's coffers. The province is Pakistan's largest, making up around 40 percent of its area, but also its least populated, with only 9 million people, about half the population of the city of Karachi. Just over half the province's population is Baluch.
The local government is seen as notoriously corrupt, dysfunctional and not responsive to Baluch grievances. Adding to the misery, paramilitary soldiers and intelligence agents have waged a repressive campaign against separatists in which they are accused of snatching scores of people off the street and either killing them or holding them in secret detention. That has fueled distrust of authorities and support for the separatists, especially among Baluchistan's young middle class.
The area has also been plagued by horrific attacks by Islamic militants on minority Shiites. Afghan Taliban fighters have used the territory's empty, arid landscape as a refuge, and the group's elusive leader Mullah Omar is believed to be hiding here. The province, located on the Arabian Sea, is also vital to coalition forces fighting in landlocked Afghanistan, providing one of two overland routes used to ship NATO supplies to troops there.
Some see the voting for national and provincial assemblies as a possible turning point.
Baluch nationalist parties that boycotted elections five years ago and have been out of power in the province for over a decade have decided to participate in the vote. They are pressing Baluch demands for greater autonomy and a larger share of the province's resources — but they advocate remaining part of the state. The hope is that their victory could lessen support for the violent insurgency.
But the question of whether participation is the solution has even divided families.
Akhtar Mengal, one of the most prominent Baluch leaders, returned from self-imposed exile in Dubai in March to lead his Baluchistan Nationalist Party-M in the election. He acknowledges the difficulties of trying to work through the system, especially given the army's power in the province.
"The state has ruled Baluchistan not as a province, but as a colony," he told The Associated Press. "Unless they change their behavior, I don't think the problems here will be solved in 100 years."
His brother, Javed Mengal, who remains in the United Arab Emirates, is an outspoken supporter of independence, and officials accuse him of leading one of several groups that have been staging gun and bomb attacks against security forces, government officials and even civilians for years.
Javed's son, Noordin, denies he or his father back insurgents. But they see no hope elections can help Baluchistan.
"We don't trust the Pakistani military because they have always deceived us and we have only been left with bloodshed and misery," said Noordin, speaking by phone from the UAE. "This is a controlled democracy, and elections in the past haven't resulted in any meaningful change for the people."
The Mengal family isn't the only one divided by the conflict. One of the most powerful separatist leaders, Hyrbyari Marri, has a brother who is running in the election from the Pakistan Muslim League-N party.
Baluchistan's residents have had a tense relationship with Pakistan's central government since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1947. The province has experienced five violent rebellions since then.
In the 1990s, the participation in politics by the two main Baluch nationalist parties helped keep a lid on separatist violence. But when military strongman Pervez Musharraf came to power in Islamabad in a 1999 coup, he sought to sideline the secular nationalists, implementing election rules that favored Islamist parties. Those parties went on to form the provincial government in 2002.
In 2005, the latest separatist rebellion erupted, and Musharraf launched an army campaign to crush it. But the use of force and widespread abuses by security forces only fueled the insurgency. Human Rights Watch has said hundreds of people have been "forcibly disappeared" since 2005, while Baluch activists put the number in the thousands. The United Nations sent a team to investigate the issue last year and found no evidence that anyone in the government has been punished for the alleged abuses.
The two main nationalist parties responded to Musharraf's tactics by boycotting the 2008 elections. That vote brought in the current provincial government, seen as unabashedly corrupt. Islamabad nearly doubled development funds for Baluchistan in 2010, but officials were accused of pocketing millions of dollars rather than spending it on the province.
Javed Baluch, the owner of a small grain shop in Quetta, said he believes nationalist leaders like Akhtar Mengal can help sap the strength of the separatist by convincing people that Baluchistan's problems can be addressed through politics rather than force.
"He would persuade those people who have taken up arms to come down from the mountains and work with us for the prosperity and progress of the province," said Baluch.
But not everyone is convinced. Mengal's critics have spread claims that he returned from exile after striking a secret deal with the military — allegations denied by his party. Mengal spent nearly two years in jail during Musharraf's rule and left the country after he was released in 2008.
The performance of the nationalist parties in the election could come down to whether voters are brave enough risk separatist attacks to head to the polls, especially in insurgent strongholds in the province.
"People are scared due to these blasts, but there is no other way for us than to go to the polling station and cast our vote," said Mohammed Ashraf, the owner of a small sandal shop in Quetta.
Associated Press writer Abdul Sattar contributed to this report.