Two months after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2007, Pakistan went to the polls, burdened with grief.
Five years later, Pakistan is voting again, but with the grief of multiple, smaller attacks targeted at political party activists and candidates. There has been little respite from election related violence, to the point where the acerbic author Mohammed Hanif tweeted recently that “Every time I turn on the TV or go on the internet, something blows up somewhere. Kind of scared of the remote control and keyboard.”
This was supposed to be the election to watch, prompting many to compare it to the fervor surrounding Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s electoral win in 1970 in what was then West Pakistan. Instead, this year’s election has been overshadowed by funerals and fire, as candidates for three of the most prominent political parties in Pakistan have scaled down their campaigns after threats turned into a spree of bombings that has spread from Peshawar to Karachi. The three in the firing line are the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which were part of the 2008-2013 coalition government. A declared target of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for their purportedly secular beliefs, the parties have had their candidates and party offices systematically attacked. The ANP, in particular, has borne the brunt of it. The Bilour family – after losing ANP’s provincial minister Bashir Ahmed Bilour in a suicide bombing last December – was targeted again in an attack on a rally. The TTP claimed responsibility, saying Bilour’s son – a candidate for the elections – was the target.
The PPP, MQM and ANP have banded together in the final stretch before the elections, and are venting their rage at the parties that do seem to have been largely spared the brunt of the militants’ attacks: the center- and extreme right-wing parties such as the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League or Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. They’re also questioning why the Punjab province, where the two parties have been campaigning extensively, seems to be the only place where there appears to be any election activity, since there have been no attacks in the province as yet. At a press conference earlier this week, MQM’s Haider Abbas Rizvi said that “Instead of looking towards religious extremists and their sympathizers, the western countries should urge the election commission and the caretaker government to hold genuinely free and fair elections. A level playing field should be given to all political parties so that they may start canvassing their voters. It is an undeniable reality that currently the election campaign is being run in Punjab only.”
No one appears to know how to answer the question of why Punjab has been spared, or why the three parties have been made a target, but the conspiracy theories are doing the rounds anyway: this is a bid to delay elections; the right-wing is liked by the militants so they won’t attack them, and more disturbingly, the parties are attacking themselves and this is all just part of a grand international conspiracy. In Punjab’s Jhang district, the head of the banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi took a break from door-to-door campaigning to propound the same theory. “The attacks are wrong, and we do not like this,” he said, “This is a clear conspiracy against the country and foreign powers are involved.”
Despite this, Pakistan trudges, bloodied and wounded, to the finish line: May 11. And it is becoming increasingly clear that without the ability to hold large, grandiose rallies that capture the attention of the people and pundits, and where even neighborhood campaign offices are bombed, the three parties will remain on the sidelines of this election. It isn’t fair, the three are saying, claiming that that this is “not a law and order situation, but an ideological division”. In a country where the notions of change and revolution and promises of a newer, brighter Pakistan are repeated ad nauseam by candidates who’ve been in politics for as long as the youngest voter in the country, the only thing that has really changed is how violent the elections have become.