QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) -- 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.