On a warm afternoon in Peshawar, barely 100 supporters are listening to Ghulam Bilour in the garden of his property. Bilour is one of the most prominent politicians of the Awami National Party (ANP) from Peshawar. He was the railway minister in the previous federal government and the Bilour family owns a couple of flour mills and factories in the region. So Bilour should not have had much difficulty in holding huge jalsas attended by thousands of people. But three weeks ago, a suicide bomber blew himself up on the left side of his car after a rally. Bilour was fortunate enough to sit on the right seat, which saved his life. But his political campaign has taken a hit. Targeted by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is distinct from the Afghan Taliban in that its main enemy is the Pakistani state, he is now being forced to organise indoor meetings.
The ANP is the biggest political party of North-West Pakistan. In the region, its founder Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan is still remembered as the most effective champion of Pukhtoon nationalism. (Khan had fought for an independent state and was closely allied with the Indian National Congress before the partition) Over the years, ANP has been part of various federal and state governments and has fought several elections successfully. Yet, as the country gears up for the general elections this week, ANP faces its biggest challenge in recent years with open threats from TTP. Last month, more than 40 ANP members were killed by the terror organisation.
At 73, Ghulam Bilour speaks with a quavering voice. He looks tired and is struggling to motivate his party workers. While a supporter chants a slogan to cheer up the audience, his voice dies down as nobody repeats after him. The mood is down.
The offensive against the ANP started on 18 March when TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan sent a video message to the local media. He urged the voters not to attend the rallies organized by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the ANP. These three parties were part of the coalition government which ordered and supported the military operations in the tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province) after 2008. In areas like Swat, Bajaur, South Waziristan and Kurram, the TTP had a tough fight against the Pakistan army and vacated its strongholds. Thousands of Taliban foot soldiers were killed or jailed. The remaining ones fled to North Waziristan, Afghanistan or to various cities like Peshawar and Karachi. They haven’t given up the fight though and keep targeting political parties and the army through target killings and bomb attacks.
Human Rights Watch estimates that around 70 people were killed in election campaign-related violence last month. On 4 May, an office of MQM was bombed by the Taliban in Karachi. Three people were killed and over 30 were injured. Due to security concerns, PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto hasn’t attended a single rally. His last message to the party workers was broadcasted on the internet.
But it is the ANP that is the TTP’s pet target. On 22 December 2012, Ghulam Bilour’s brother, Bashir Bilour, was killed by a suicide bomber. Now his son Haroon has taken the lead. “The death of my father and then the attack against Ghulam Bilour on 16 April was a turning point,” says the 42-year-old lawyer. “We don’t organise big rallies any more. Whenever we have a meeting, we only inform the president of the local section 30 minutes in advance. He then tries to call as many people as possible and gather them. Sometimes, he can manage 50 or 100 people, but that’s it. How can we talk to voters then? We are running a marathon race with our feet and hands tied whereas the other parties are not being targeted.”
The Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N ) headed by Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) are holding impressive rallies all over the country without any worries. Along with the Islamist parties, they are off the Taliban’s hit-list.
“They don’t want the PPP, the MQM and the ANP to set up the next government and support more military operations,” says prominent Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. “The TTP would like that other parties, which believe in talks with the militants, come to power. This includes the PML-N, the PTI, Maulana Fazal Ur Rehman’s JUI-F and Jamaat-e-islami. Thus, they hope that the next government will agree to have talks with the Taliban on their conditions. However I don’t think that the army’s strategy toward terrorism will shift. So if PML-N wins the election and decides to support the military in its war against the TTP, then the Taliban will also turn against Nawaz Sharif,” he says.
After several weeks of constant threats and bomb attacks, the ANP is asking for a truce. The party desperately need some space so that it can campaign and avoid a huge electoral setback. “We need to stop this war and we support talks with the TTP,” argues Haroon Bilour. But it is unlikely that the Taliban will accept his offer as they view the ANP as “America’s slave” and a secular party which is un-Islamic. “It is well known that ANP leaders approve the CIA drone attacks against the Taliban in Waziristan. They also approved the US invasion in Afghanistan in 2001 just as they approved the Soviet invasion in 1979 and also openly support Afghan President Hamid Karzaï. ANP leaders have always hated both the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban. So asking for a truce is irrelevant,” argues Rahimullah Yusufzai. Last Friday, a few days after Haroon Bilour’s request for a truce, an ANP candidate was gunned down in Karachi by the Taliban.
It is 6.30 pm and Ghulam Bilour has just finished his speech at his Peshawar house. Only one journalist has come to cover it as nobody wants to take the risk of being caught in a suicide attack. Most of the local newspapers are not covering his campaign. Bashir Bilour’s effort looks so vain that one wonders if he has lost all hope. On being asked whether he really thinks he can win, he prefers not to answer as dozens of party workers are surrounding him. He recalls ANP’s previous electoral successes with nostalgia and clutching his small red cap in his hands nervously, he boasts about how he defeated Benazir Bhutto in 1990. When pressed for an answer again, he falters and says, “Sure… why not?”