Pakistan’s latest milestone in its democratic development should be historic national elections on May 11. But already there is concern of prepoll rigging – except not the kind that involves stuffing ballot boxes.
The Pakistan Taliban has carried out a deadly wave of explosions, suicide bombings and targeted shootings that has left 46 people dead and more than 190 injured since campaigning officially started on April 21, according to Human Rights Watch. Another attack, in which eight people died, occurred Monday in Peshawar.
The target is always the same: a candidate, an activist or an office belonging to one of Pakistan’s secular political parties.
“We are against all politicians who are going to become part of any secular, democratic government,” Pakistan Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the Associated Press on Sunday.
Secular liberal parties say the Pakistan Taliban is waging a deliberate election strategy.
“Their objective is to create fear among people so that they don’t vote for us in elections,” said Faisal Subzwari, a leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, in an interview with German radio. “They want the right-wing parties to win.”
Pakistan finds itself at a crucial crossroads. A country that has spent more than half of its 66 years under military rule has just witnessed a civilian government completing a full five-year term for the first time without being overthrown.
But with national and provincial elections less than two weeks away, the country is bracing itself for still more violence.
The authorities appear powerless to stop the attacks. Pakistan’s security forces have struggled to thwart Pakistan Taliban attacks since 2008.
Raza Rumi, a political analyst and director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute think-tank, said the violence amounts to campaign manipulation. “What is happening is that the Taliban is basically calling the shots as to who is allowed to contest the elections and who must be discredited in the process.”
Leaders of right-wing parties calling for negotiations with the Pakistan Taliban problem have been spared, leading secular politicians to complain that they are campaigning at a disadvantage.
“Pakistani democracy, still wobbly on its feet, cannot withstand such a bludgeoning. Violence that continues until polling day could undermine the credibility of election results,” wrote Dawn newspaper columnist Huma Yusuf.
In the latest violence since Saturday, the Pakistan Taliban was blamed for attacks on the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party all over the country.
Secular parties have complained they are risking the lives of their candidates and supporters if they hold rallies in places like Karachi, where the Pakistan Taliban control some neighbourhoods.
The divide between secular and right-wing parties during the election campaign period is most stark in the north in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders the tribal areas, and Punjab, the country’s most populous province representing the most number of seats in the national assembly.
Both the Pakistan Muslim League’s Nawaz Sharif, who has served as prime minister twice already and is looking to return to power, and former cricket superstar turned politician Imran Khan, whose Pakistan Movement for Justice is challenging Mr. Sharif’s Punjab power base, have appeared regularly at large political rallies.
Both have criticized Pakistan’s foreign policy as being too closely aligned to the United States.
They have also called for negotiations with the Pakistan Taliban. In recent days, Mr. Khan has said that, if his party won the election, he would pull back troops from the tribal areas.