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How the Taliban is having a chilling effect on the Pakistani election

As the country gears up for its first ever democratic transition, the secular liberal parties have been threatened into silence.

Supporters of Pakistan's Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) hold flags during an election meeting in Quetta on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images

One of the first things to strike any foreign observer of Pakistan’s political scene is the sheer scale of public gatherings. In a highly politicised population of 180 million, protests and campaign rallies can easily attract people in their tens – if not hundreds – of thousands.

But as the country gears up for its first ever democratic transition, with the election date set for 11 May, the campaign has been tense and one-sided. The reason? The ramped up threat from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and associated extremist groups.

In a 24 hour period this week, there were nine bomb blasts in three different provinces. Karachi, Pakistan’s economic hub, situated in the province of Sindh, was targeted, as was neighbouring Balochistan, and several places in the northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. More than 75 people have been injured and at least 11 killed.

This is far from being the start of the violence. Since the election campaign kicked off in March, 28 people have been killed in 14 separate attacks. The TTP claimed responsibility for five of those, and the remainder are most likely the work of associated groups.

The biggest targets are the liberal, secular parties that are outspoken in their criticism of the Taliban. Before the campaign got underway, the TTP announced that they would target politicians from the leading coalition – the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) – warning voters to stay away from their rallies. They have made good on their threat.

The ANP, which is predominantly made up of Pashtuns, the same ethnic group that the Taliban is drawn from, has been relentlessly targeted. Ruling the provincial government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the party represents the secular tradition in the TTP’s heartlands, and has been one of the loudest voices against extremist violence. According to the ANP, 750 members have been killed by the Taliban in the last five years. During this campaign alone, there have been at least six attacks on the party. The MQM’s election camp, too, was one of the targets in the recent 24 hours of bloodshed.

These attacks on party offices, supporters, and candidates, are having a serious effect on the way the campaign is playing out. Those huge scale rallies are a key characteristic of Pakistani politics – but they also leave leaders incredibly vulnerable to attack.

The outgoing PPP, which saw its leader Benazir Bhutto assassinated in the 2008 election campaign, is breaking with tradition by not holding any major rallies at all. Instead, its election campaign is focusing on videos, social media, pamphlets, and smaller gatherings. The ANP, too, is being forced to keep its campaigning on a small scale and frequently at a distance. For some politicians, such as the ANP’s Mian Iftikhar Hussain, who has been vociferous in his criticism of the Taliban, is it too dangerous to even visit their home constituencies, so campaigning is being done over the phone.

Of course, this is expected to have a knock on effect. On 4 April, the anniversary of the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the PPP was supposed to kick off their election campaign with a major rally at the Bhutto mausoleum in Larkana. At the last minute, it was cancelled and replaced with a closed gathering, leaving many supporters – who have a deeply emotional connection to the Bhutto dynasty – feeling angry and betrayed. If politicians do not dare to set foot in their constituencies, how can they convince the electorate they care?

This is not to say that no big-scale campaigning is happening at all. Far from it, the PPP’s main rivals, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and current frontrunner Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are both engaged in a frenetic round of rallies, frequently drawing tens of thousands of people out. Critics point to the fact that both parties occupy a centre-right, socially conservative space, and that neither leader has condemned the Taliban by name. For the most part, both prefer to stay away from the subject of terrorism at their rallies, in what some have painted as a cynical bid to stay safe.

Further to the right, hard line Islamic parties have also been free to campaign. One striking contrast was last Tuesday, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a meeting of the ANP in the north-western city of Peshawar, killing 16 people. Hours before, a candidate from one of the Islamic parties, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, campaigned freely in the same city. Maulana Jalil Jan, who has questioned whether the Taliban are terrorists and said that attacks in Pakistan are an attempt by foreign powers to “malign religious leaders”, walked around the city without guards.

Traditionally, religious parties rarely get more than about 5 per cent of the vote, but there’s a chance that could change, since rightist parties are disproportionately free to campaign.

While many, particularly in the ANP, have decried this chilling effect as “pre-poll rigging”, it is worth remembering that there was already a strong anti-incumbent feeling. The PPP, and other outgoing parties, are struggling to defend their time in power, with allegations of corruption and incompetence as the country’s economy flounders, the security situation continues to spiral, and the energy crisis deepens.

Yet there is a limited amount they can do to fight against this perception given the safety risks. There is no doubt that the backdrop of violence is having an impact on how parties campaign. A big political assassination has been prevented so far – though many are waiting with bated breath. It’s also likely that the security situation will impact voter turnout on 11 May. With half the polling stations in mega-city Karachi declared sensitive, as well as many in other areas, it’s questionable how many people will take the risk of going out to cast their vote. The TTP may not be fielding candidates in the election, but that certainly does not mean it is not playing a part.