Killings fail to halt Pakistan election

Pakistan’s politicians and voters say violence has only spurred them on to engage further in democratic processes.

Workers of the ANP gathered at a local-level office in Quetta, Pakistan [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
Hundreds of Awami National Party members have been killed in the past five years [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Quetta, Pakistan – It is often difficult to define ‘normal’ when it comes to electoral politics in Pakistan: a certain degree of violence, poll rigging, time-worn campaign promises, and strongly nationalist and not always entirely accurate rhetoric, has, for citizens, become a part of the political sphere.

Even by Pakistan’s oft dysfunctional standards, however, this election season has been particularly bloody. More than 76 people have been killed in poll-related violence across the country since campaigning began in early April.

Sadiq Zaman Khattak was the latest to fall. A member of the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), Khattak was gunned down along with his young son by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gunmen in the southern metropolis of Karachi.

Much of the violence – which has taken the form of shootings, rocket attacks, grenade attacks, improvised explosive device explosions and bombings – has been claimed by the TTP. On April 30, Hakeemullah Mehsud, the TTP’s chief, said  his group was focused on “end[ing] the democratic system” in Pakistan.

The Taliban’s campaign against the country’s three main secular political parties – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the ANP – has some analysts terming the attacks a form of pre-poll rigging in favour of parties such as the religious political forces of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam. The TTP considers these to be softer in their stance against extremism and militancy.

In Balochistan, 13 of the 30 districts have been
classified ‘very sensitive’ [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Not all of the violence, however, has been carried out by religiously motivated groups. In a country where voting in both rural and urban areas is often along ethnic or tribal lines, there have also been incidents of political rivals targeting one another – such as the shooting of Abdul Fateh Magsi , a provincial assembly candidate, on April 30.

In Balochistan, the country’s largest but least densely populated and least developed province, there is also the added threat from armed ethnic Baloch separatists, who have said that they would not allow polls to go forward. They have carried out a spate of attacks against several parties in a bid to discourage campaigning.

“I was never expecting something like this to happen, it just wasn’t on my mind at all,” said Muhammad Shafi, whose legs were badly injured in a grenade attack on a political party office here in the provincial capital Quetta on Wednesday.

“I was checking my name on the voter lists [at the office]. Then these men came and hurled a grenade into the room. All of the windows broke, and it was chaos – I couldn’t understand what was happening. I lost consciousness, and then they took me to the hospital in a rickshaw,” the 27-year-old told Al Jazeera from his hospital bed.

The situation in the unstable province is further complicated by the existence of pro-government militia – known locally as “death squads” – which Baloch nationalist political parties say have been targeting their members.

“They are attempting to sideline us from the political process,” said Dr Jehanzeb Jamaldini, a senior vice-president of the Mengal faction of the Balochistan National Party (BNP-M). “We are not being allowed to campaign freely […] and our supporters are being openly told that if they go to vote on polling day they will be killed.”

‘No question of turning back’

The scale of Pakistan’s election – with 15,629 candidates running for 849 provincial and national assembly seats – is huge. The country’s election commission says that it is on course to set up more than 70,000 polling stations across the country, but that security remains their overarching concern.

Pakistan violence worries Balochistan voters  

“Law and order is the biggest issue,” Syed Sultan Bayazeed, Balochistan’s provincial election commissioner told Al Jazeera. “We want the candidates to be safe, we want the polling staff to be safe, and our voters to be able to vote in an environment that has no threats or dangers to them.”

To this end, the provincial government has declared 2,800 of the province’s 3,679 polling stations to be “very sensitive”, with an increased security presence. In all, polling stations in 14 of Balochistan’s 30 districts have received this “very sensitive” classification, with another 10 districts’ stations declared “sensitive”.

Bayazeed tols Al Jazeera that there is a particular threat to election commission staff, and that intelligence agencies had warned him of kidnapping threats that have been made by Baloch separatist groups such as the United Baloch Army.

To address those concerns, the Pakistani army has announced a country-wide deployment of 70,000 troops, mainly as “quick response forces”, to secure polling stations in each of Pakistan’s four provinces and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

Some 20,000 of those troops – 6,000 army soldiers and 14,000 Frontier Corps paramilitary personnel – will be deployed to Balochistan, the provincial home secretary told Al Jazeera.

“We know the capability that [armed Baloch separatists] have: that is placing IEDs and lobbing hand grenades. That is it. Nothing more and nothing less. Except in mountainous areas, [where] they resort to firing rockets,” said Akbar Durrani.

“There’s no question of turning back. Elections will [happen]. God willing we will hold free, fair and transparent elections in Balochistan.”

Durrani downplayed the threat posed by separatists such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), Baloch Republican Army (BRA) and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) – all of whom have carried out attacks against election candidates and workers – saying they are not supported by most Baloch people and have limited reach. When asked why, in the face of such a diminished perceived threat, the government felt the need to deploy a small army of 20,000 personnel (in addition to the tens of thousands already on the ground as police and security personnel), Durrani said the deployments were for “the confidence of the common people”.

Inside Story: Pakistan – Putting democracy to the test

Fear and determination

Grassroots level party workers, however, remain concerned about the threats.

“There is fear among all of the political workers,” said Aziz-ur-Rehman Sarangzai, a party worker for the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) in Quetta. “When we go out to campaign we say the qalma [key Muslim words of faith], and we don’t know if we will return home. And it’s even worse in the rural areas.”

Niaz Muhammad Khan, a local leader of the same party, echoed that sentiment.

“Right now, anyone from any party, even the rulers themselves, are not safe. The [Baloch nationalist parties], independents, mainstream parties – all have been attacked,” he said.

Sanaullah, a party worker for the religious Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam Nazariati (JUI-N), stressed to Al Jazeera that the threats to people’s lives in Balochistan predated the elections.

“Every person is scared. A student cannot go to school, a trader cannot go to work – there is fear in the hearts of innocents. It was there before the elections, and it is there now as well,” he said.

Others are concerned about the impact on their campaigning, and how the violence has affected their chances of succeeding at the polls.

“There are many difficulties in campaigning,” said Nasiruddin, a PPP candidate for a provincial assembly seat. “We were planning to go door-to-door, but you can see what the situation is now. It’s very difficult, we had to cancel our plans.”

Workers of the ANP – a party that says it has lost more than 750 members to Taliban attacks in the past five years – agree with those concerns.

“We cannot take out rallies openly, we cannot have political meetings or gatherings in public,” said Muhammad Kamran Kasi, a senior worker of the party in Quetta.

“Intelligence agencies have told us to be careful [due to specific threats],” he said. “But you can’t ‘be careful’ and also fight an election. You might as well give up.”

Nevertheless, activists and political party leaders alike in Quetta told Al Jazeera of their determination to contest the polls, even in the face of threats. Indeed, several said they were spurred on by them.

“The common Pakistani has had everything looted from him – rights, education, access to healthcare – they have just one thing left: their vote. The terrorists must not be allowed to take that away,” Lashkari Raisani, a provincial assembly candidate for the PML-N and tribal leader, told Al Jazeera.

His party’s workers feel the same way

“Right now, I cannot walk due to my injuries,” said Shafi, injured in the blast on Raisani’s office on Wednesday.

“But if I can get to my feet on May 11, I will vote.”

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera