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.

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.

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

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder