Will Pre Poll Violence Usher in the Taliban from the Back Door?

ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan (Credit: pakistantoday.com.pk)
The 2013 elections in Pakistan are critical for setting a clear goal post for the nation. However, the short time frame in which they are taking place has left the caretaker administration and security institutions scrambling to clean up a nation wracked by terrorism, poverty and inequality.

With the simmering insurgency on the Pak-Afghan border, the caretaker administration has tried to beef up security in the violence stricken areas of FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan — as well as Karachi, where former incumbents from the secular PPP, ANP and MQM are under attack by a determined Taliban enemy.

But given that militants in Pakistan’s north have consistently targeted secular candidates, especially Awami National Party, while allowing rallies by Imran Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaf, Jamiat-i-Ulema Islam (Fazlur Rehman group) and even the Pakistan Muslim League (N) — has led to questions about the outcome of the election.

In particular, civil society is questioning whether the relentlessness with which militants are killing secular incumbents and their supporters, while facilitating political parties who have a soft corner for them – will bring pro Taliban legislators into parliament.

In many areas of the KP and FATA, the poor security situation has already deprived incumbents from hoisting party flags or holding rallies. Apart from contesting as independents or putting up proxies, the ANP and PPP have not nominated candidates to many seats in Waziristan and the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan.

The anti US sentiment in Pakistan, accelerated by drone attacks and military operations… combined with increased poverty, income gap and poor governance, is a big factor that has caused the incumbents to lose ground among voters.

But the ANP – which lost many key leaders while stopping the onslaught of the Taliban in the last five years – has been worst hit. Its rallies have been repeatedly attacked and its rank and file killed and wounded across Pakistan. The party leadership has clearly spelled out the Tehrik-i-Taliban as the perpetrators. The TTP has also become the MQM’s worst enemy – kiling their candidates and attacking their election offices.

Time and again, the caretaker administration has taken note of the terrible security situation and beefed up security. The visible effects of greater law enforcement has been a drop off in mass terror attacks (like the one planned by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi against Hazaras late April in Balochistan) and a slight drop off in violence in Karachi.

But it is a situation that has caused the PPP to hunker down and avoid public rallies. That is changing the face of the once populist party, which even refrained from kicking off its election campaign on April 4, the death anniversary of PPP founder, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The election scenario does not look good for the Zardari led PPP, whose primary achievement seems to have been the completion of five years in power. To its detriment, the PPP government has left behind a nation that is hungrier, violent and more unstable — and still out of sync with the modern world.

Come May 11, voters across Pakistan will likely vote on the basis of feudal and tribal loyalties. Still, the government’s lack luster performance over the last five years is bound to cost them a big percentage of the votes.

This is bound to hurt the party even in its home turf in Sindh, where it is now pitted against all political forces that exercise influence in the province. The Pakistan Muslim League (N), joined by Pirs, tribal and feudal chiefs, religious parties and even nationalists have formed an anti PPP front that is almost reminiscent of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) — funded by the intelligence agencies in 1993 to prevent Benazir Bhutto from returning to power.

That is where the similarity ends.

Two decades ago, when Benazir led the PPP, her being a woman necessarily changed the party’s image. Keeping up the populism espoused by her father former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, she led a party of the masses that touched on the promised goodness of the socialist rhetoric `roti, kapra, makan,’ (food, clothing and shelter) — even if it did not deliver. But the image of millions of people looking for change did not jive with the establishment — and contributed to her murder in 2007.

Thereafter, the default president, Asif Zardari — hands untied, amassed wealth and privileges for a coterie of supporters at the expense of the majority “have-nots.” He used the classic methods he knew of getting opponents out of the way — sweet talk and bribe.

The situation has not gone unnoticed by the Supreme Court, which recently moved against some of the political appointments made by the departing PPP government. The superior court has also moved against the “life time of perks and privileges” bestowed by the PPP’s departing prime minister to former government functionaries just before the National Assembly term concluded.

Come May 11, tribal loyalties and to some extent the background of the candidates will influence the results of elections in rural Sindh. In so doing, voters may still choose the lower middle class Sindhis from the PPP as opposed to larger feudals. Still, the situation remains dicey and not altogether in the PPP’s favor.

Midway between Karachi and Hyderabad, the coastal town of Thatta promises to be a test case in the electoral contest between the PPP – where the Shirazis and Malkanis (head of the tribal Jats) – have announced the withdrawal of support from the PPP to their own nominee. In so doing, they have put up their own candidate, Zardari’s nominee and a shadowy muscle man – Owais Muzzafar (Tappi) – accusing him of usurpation of lands and the promotion of a coastal town of Zulfikarabad, being opposed by the locals.

It has opened up the situation for an independent candidate for provincial assembly – Mohammed Ali Shah – to step into the election. Shah is president of the Pakistan Fisher folk Forum and espouses an idealistic program to fight for the rights of fisher folk as well as agricultural and livestock communities.

Shah, who opposes PPP’s Owais Muzzafar for provincial assembly, claims his candidature has caused the Thatta feudals to break away from their support for the PPP.

Whichever way the situation pans out, a sense of disillusionment with the incumbent parties as well as the existing culture of the provinces is bound to redraw its political scenario.

Till then, the candidates deserve a level playing field instead of the life and death threats they confront in their quest to represent the people.

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