For Pakistan’s secular parties, the current election campaign is a deadly affair – and one party in particular has bore the brunt of Pakistan Taliban attacks in a climate that makes any electioneering nearly impossible.
Late Tuesday, at a small corner election meeting organized by the Awami National Party in the northwestern city of Peshawar, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest and killed 17 people – including two children.
In the convoy of cars that arrived in the city’s kite market was senior ANP leader Ghulam Ahmed Bilour and his nephew Haroon Bilour – whose father was killed in a Pakistan Taliban bombing in December. Both escaped Tuesday’s blast with minor injuries.
The bombing happened on the same day that the Pakistan Taliban said it was not responsible for the Boston marathon bombings that killed three.
“Bomb explodes at political rally in Peshawar, Pakistan – children among the dead. Wonder who in the world shares our grief?” tweeted Islamabad-based columnist and former foreign ministry adviser Mosharraf Zaidi.
Another Pakistani blogger tweeted: “More power to the bravest democratic party there is in Pakistan!”
The party that has been the strongest backer of a military solution to the Taliban problem continues to pay a heavy price in lives – and now increasingly in support among voters who must decide whether the ANP should lead the troubled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for a second term and play a role at the national level.
“I think they’re very brave in terms of their front lines and fighting extremism and terrorism and I commend them – I take my hat off to them. They have stood firm and steadfast against the terrorists,” said Talat Masood, retired lieutenant-general of the Pakistan Army and currently a security analyst.
But some of the failures of the ANP are of their own doing – its inability to establish good governance while heading the provincial government and fighting corruption, added Mr. Masood.
With less than a month to go before May 11 elections, campaigning is likely to become deadlier. On Wednesday, another ANP leader narrowly escaped an attack in Charsadda, a 30-minute drive from Peshawar.
The party has moved away from holding big election rallies to door-to-door canvassing and organizing smaller “corner meetings” where candidates can meet constituents, reports Dawn News, and always with their own security.
“We have been asked [by the party] to accompany, at least, eight gunmen in two vehicles during our movement, including four guards in each vehicle,” a senior ANP leader told the newspaper.
The Awami National Party is a largely regional, Pashtun-dominated party that has been in power at the provincial level for the last five years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – an area that lies next to Pakistan’s restive tribal areas that border Afghanistan.
The ANP has backed a military operation against a Pakistan Taliban insurgency in the tribal areas that has tested the military’s counter-insurgency strategy.
The ANP’s support of the Pakistan military makes it vulnerable among voters who have endured regular Taliban bombings on the province’s major cities and towns. The conflict and monsoon floods in 2010 have led to more than 750,000 internally displaced persons, according to the United Nations. The area has also been the focus of controversial and unpopular U.S. drone strikes.
Other political parties are seeking to peel away previous ANP support with greater openness to negotiating with the Pakistan Taliban.
Pakistan is in the midst of historic elections with the first civilian government in the country’s history having completed its full five-year term without military intervention. The Pakistan Taliban has singled out three secular parties – the ANP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (the United National Movement, or MQM) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – as targets during the run-up to the May 11th national vote.
All three parties were part of the national government that – while achieving a significant political milestone – has been criticized for failing to tackle terrorism, corruption and an energy crisis.
The ANP says more than 700 party workers have been killed since 2008.
Last Thursday, a grocer standing as a candidate for the MQM – a party whose base is dominated by the descendants of people who migrated to Pakistan from India following partition in 1947 – in the southern city of Hyderabad was shot by Pakistan Taliban gunmen riding a motorcycle.
While Pakistan struggles with a resilient insurgency and a Pakistan Taliban that is able to attack targets in the tribal areas as well the country’s largest city, Karachi, on the Arabian Sea, it is also dealing with the aftermath of a 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Tuesday that killed 35 in Balochistan province. Pakistani soldiers have been sent to help earthquake-affected areas.
Meanwhile, former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s bid to lead his political party in the next elections has came to an end after a ruled against his candidacy for a national assembly seat. The former dictator seized power in 1999 and stepped down in 2008.