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.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.