‘If You Vote, You Will Be Dead’

Pakistan’s May 11 election is generally described as a threeway constest between a moribund (leftish) Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), a resurgent (rightish) Pakistan Muslim League-N(PML-N), and the rising third force of cricket hero Imran Khan’s Tehrik e-Insaf (PTI), with the PML-N likely to get a plurality of the vote. But Pakistan has a complex political landscape. If any of several important regional parties, or the struggling PPP, obtain enough parliamentary seats, they could be kingmakers, deciding whether the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif forms the next government, or instead throwing their support behind a coalition backing Imran Khan. In this context, the Pakistani Taliban’s deliberate effort to bomb and assassinate these parties out of the election may well be a determining factor on Saturday.

“We have always been MQM voters, but this time we have decided not to go out and vote because of security concerns,” said Syed Ayaz, a businessman in Karachi. The situation in the city is tense after more than eight major terrorist attacks by the Taliban, who had threatened to target the MQM, the ANP and the PPP – parties who they say oppose them. The boldest of these attacks was on MQM’s headquarters Nine Zero on May 4. Days before that, a PPP office was bombed in Hub, and an ANP candidate was killed along with his young son in Karachi. [The liberal MQM is a Sindhi party which mainly appeals to families who came to Pakistan after Partition, while the leftist ANP has traditionally dominated Pashtun areas where the Taliban are now an important force.]

“This terror campaign has been launched by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to create fear, to keep people away from the elections, and possibly postpone them,” says [police superintendent]Chaudry Aslam, who has been at the forefront of law-enforcement operations against the Taliban.

In Pashtun dominated areas [of Karachi]like SITE, Ittehad Town, and Mainwali Colony, this fear mongering is especially visible. “If you vote, you will be dead” say posters signed by the Taliban that were put up on mosques.

“Mainwali Colony is a no-go area,” says Tariq Saeed, a factory owner. “Businessmen have to face extortion and threats from the Taliban,” he said. “The TTP has made a shura in our area and many of us have left the neighborhood because of security fears.”

Meanwhile, education officials in the entire province have declined to perform election duties. “No one is willing to conduct election duties, not even the newly appointed junior staff, because of the poor law and order,” said Saman Zaidi, a spokeswoman of the Education Ministry. “We have asked the Election Commission to give us more time to persuade the teachers.”

Veteran ANP leader Bashir Jan, who has survived four assassination attempts, is confined to his Mardan House in Karachi, from where he runs his campaign. “Clearly, we the liberal and progressive parties are the target of Taliban,” he said. “But opting out of the elections is an option we cannot exercise.”

The MQM has been the worst hit party so far, losing at least 17 supporters in various terrorist attacks in the last month.

Dr Jehanzeb Mughal, a covering candidate in NA-250 and a central executive member of MQM, said security remained the biggest problem for his party. “How can we not propagate our message? Our voters and our campaign are being targeted by the Taliban. They want to ensure only pro-TTP parties win the elections.”

It is because of these concerns that the MQM has changed its campaign strategy. “Instead of holding large gatherings, we are holding small meetings preferably indoors,” said Mughal. “We are also using social media and running house-to-house engagements via our unit networks to mobilize support.”

In Lyari, a PPP corner meeting was hit by a bomb killing four people. “The target was our MPA from the area,” PPP leader Abdul Qadir Patel said. “How do you expect us to run an election campaign in such a situation?”

Other parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, JUI-F, PML-N and PTI, have been actively campaigning in Karachi, and according to their rivals are under no threat because of their softer views on the Taliban.

Saleem Zia, a PML-N leader who is contesting the elections, does not agree. “The MQM, ANP and PPP are confusing the issue. If there’s a threat from the TTP, they were in government for five years and had also appointed the caretakers. They should have dealt with it.” He said the parties were losing and therefore “making excuses”.

To ensure security on election day, Pakistan Army soldiers will be deployed on key polling stations in Karachi. But a top intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he was concerned a high-profile assassination could potentially delay the elections. “But what worries us more is TTP’s broader plan to maneuver elections and bring in political parties that are ideologically aligned with them.”

Jamaat-e-Islami held a successful rally at Jinnah’s mausoleum where its leader Munawar Hasan blamed liberal parties for the recent terrorist attacks on them. “While we condemn terrorism, these parties had been in power for the last five years and should have done something about it,” he said. “Jamaat-e-Islami will do everything in its power, if elected, to finish all sorts of terrorism.”

TTP [Taliban] spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan also repeated his previous resolve in a recent contact with reporters. “We will make sure we destroy the MQM, ANP and PPP and there will be bloodshed on election day.”

Ali K Chishti