The South Asia Channel

Pakistani Taliban’s deadly game of politics

In Pakistani politics, electioneering and the show of power by organizing sizeable gatherings weeks ahead of polls is a matter of life and death for a political party. No party can hold ground without having a strong, persistent, and pushy election campaign, particularly when one’s opponents are busy organizing impressive rallies. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s three mainstream ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In Pakistani politics, electioneering and the show of power by organizing sizeable gatherings weeks ahead of polls is a matter of life and death for a political party. No party can hold ground without having a strong, persistent, and pushy election campaign, particularly when one’s opponents are busy organizing impressive rallies. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s three mainstream secular parties are faced with the unenviable challenge of trying to sway voters from their vocal right-wing rivals while having their campaigning efforts severely restricted as the country moves toward the landmark general elections scheduled next month.

Having borne the brunt of Taliban attacks over the past five years, the secular Awami National Party (ANP), Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), and Muttahidda Qaumi Movement (MQM)-the major coalition parties in the previous government-also find themselves at the top of the emboldened Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) hit list. In a video message last month, TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan warned people to stay away from political gatherings organized by these parties. Wary of staging vulnerable, large-scale rallies, these parties are mostly busy with smaller corner meetings. A number of the secular parties, particularly the ANP and PPP, have watched leaders switch over to right-wing parties to evade Taliban attacks and ensure their victory in the general elections in May.

The TTP’s first victim this election season was the ANP-backed candidate Adnan Wazir, whose election motorcade was targeted with a roadside bomb in northern Pakistan on March 30. While Wazir survived with serious injuries, TTP spokesman Ihsan stated: "We targeted Adnan Wazir for his support for the secular system and the secular party. It was the beginning of what we said earlier…" Then, on April 14, a local ANP leader was killed in Swat, and two supporters of another ANP candidate were killed in Dera Ismail Khan on April 15. The TTP claimed responsibility for both of those attacks as well.

As a result, the ANP has had to abandon its plans for big rallies and restrict its electioneering campaign to small corner meetings and door-to-door visits. Meanwhile, its right-wing rivals continue to stump all over the country, holding mammoth public gatherings and rallies, the hallmark of Pakistani politics, which are considered to be one of the key factors in converting public opinion.

"This is pre-poll rigging, which, if not bringing the armed Taliban in power, is certainly paving way for elevating their supporters, sympathizers, and well-wishers to the parliament," said ANP leader and former provincial information minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province Mian Iftikhar Hussain, whose young son Mian Rashid Ali Shah was shot dead by the Taliban in July 2010.

The ANP claims that the Taliban have killed more than 700 of its workers and leaders, including two provincial legislators and one senior minister, since the party came into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in 2008.

The PPP has not received any major blows at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban during this election season, but it was forced to postpone its plan to hold a public gathering on April 4, the death anniversary of the party’s founding father and former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto’s government was overthrown by his handpicked general Ziaul Haq in July 1977. The April 4 gathering was intended to kick-start the PPP election drive from Larkana, the hometown of the Bhutto family in Sindh Province.

Despite avoiding much of the violence this time around, the greatest loss for Pakistan’s secular political players struck at the core of the PPP in December 2007, when party chairperson Benazir Bhutto was killed during her election campaign. The then-government, led by former president Pervez Musharraf, said at the time that the TTP was responsible for Bhutto’s assassination.

Pakistan’s third secular party, the MQM, draws support primarily from the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, and from urban Sindh. The MQM has also been forced to focus on corner meetings, door-to-door visits, media appearances, and social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube due to the perceived threats from the Taliban. 

"Unlike the past, our election drive is all door-to-door visits, corner meetings, telephonic speeches, and media statements," said deputy MQM convener Dr. Farooq Sattar. In their talks with this writer, both the ANP and MQM leaders said they will file formal complaints about the security threats with the Election Commission of Pakistan-the body responsible for organizing and overseeing the polls.

Although the MQM is believed to have an armed wing for protection-an allegation the party vehemently denies-one of its provincial parliamentarians, Syed Manzar Imam, was assassinated in Karachi this January. The TTP claimed responsibility for the murder and issued a warning that they would carry out more such attacks against the MQM. On April 10, an MQM election candidate was killed in Hyderabad, a city neighboring Karachi.

Religious parties, such as Jamat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUI-F), claim they are also facing security threats. Qazi Hussain Ahmad of the hardline JI, who died of a heart attack in January, escaped a suicide attack on his convoy in the Mohmand tribal district in November 2012, while a bomb was detonated near the motorcade of
JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman in Charsadda in March 2011, killing 13 people.

However, the threat has never been as imminent to these religious parties, nor to Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI), the political party of former cricket celebrity Imran Khan, or the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party of former premier Nawaz Sharif. In most cases, their public rallies are spared by the militants.

Last year, PTI leader Khan led a massive march from Punjab through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to South Waziristan, the stronghold of the Hakimullah Mehsud-led TTP, to drum up support for PTI’s anti-drone campaign. His followers were left unharmed even as they headed into a region of the country that is largely controlled by the Taliban. This year, the PTI managed to hold three massive election gatherings in Lahore, Peshawar, and Swat in the month of March alone. Similarly, PML-N leader Sharif held a public gathering in Mardan on March 8 and Hazara on March 25, while the JUI-F demonstrated its popularity with a large-scale rally at the historical Minar-e-Pakistan monument in Lahore on March 31.

Khan, who is calling his party’s popularity among Pakistani youth a ‘tsunami,’ is a staunch opponent of U.S. drone strikes and Pakistan military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He stopped short of condemning
the Taliban by name when the militant group targeted 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in Swat last year.

Like Khan’s PTI, the JI, JUI-F, and PML-N also shy away from openly challenging the Taliban. Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who until last month was the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, appealed to the Taliban to spare the province by pointing out that his government was not involved in operations against them.

Additionally, in a recent development, the PML-N entered into a secret electoral alliance (also called a seat-to-seat adjustment in Pakistan) with Ahle-e-Sunna Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), meaning that the two parties agreed not to field candidates against one another in certain districts to ensure that each party wins the seats they are looking for. ASWJ was formerly called Sipah-e-Sahabah, which was the political forefather of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a sectarian group based in Punjab Province that has claimed responsibility for some of Pakistan’s worst attacks against Shi’a Muslims. Many worry that the alliance means the PML-N will refrain from acting against the LeJ in the future.

In the adjacent FATA region, where the Taliban has a very strong presence, militants seem to be allowing these right-wing parties to campaign unmolested. In North Waziristan, however, a Taliban group known as the Mullah Nazeer Group-which has a peace treaty with the Pakistani government-has pledged not to interfere with elections but has laid out stringent guidelines for parties wishing to campaign in the area. Through the distribution of pamphlets across one constituency of South Waziristan, the group has reportedly asked candidates "with no popular vote banks" not to contest the elections. It also warned the ANP, PPP, and MQM candidates about the security threats they might face in the area.

For their part, right-wing parties accuse the ANP, PPP, and MQM of mismanagement, corruption, and failing to improve the living standard of the average Pakistani during their five-year rule, which they believe will be the main reason for the secular parties’ defeat in the upcoming polls. Since the PPP and MQM have strong support in Sindh Province, the ANP will lose the most to religious and right-wing parties like the JI, JUI-F, and PTI in the Pashtun-dominated Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and in the adjacent tribal areas.

In the 2002 general elections, it was Pervez Musharraf’s government that kept the leadership of the mainstream PPP and PML-N out of the political arena-the leaders of both parties were in exile-leaving an open space for the religious alliance of Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) to come into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. At the time, the MMA had strong representation in the Pakistani parliament. Now, Taliban threats are performing the same function.

Even if the right-wing parties fail to win enough votes to form a coalition government at the national level, they are going to be a strong voice in what will likely be a divided parliament at a critical moment, as NATO and U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and the security situation in the tribal areas of Pakistan worsens. A divided parliament is also going to better serve the interests of Pakistan’s security establishment, a euphemism for Pakistan’s historically strong army that has apparently lost its grip over policy matters during the past five years.

For many political observers, it is heartening that after regular interruption and tightly controlled ‘democracy,’ the first elected government has completed its full five-year term and is on the way to a peaceful transfer of authority to the next elected one. However it is unlikely that the next government will have as smooth sailing as its predecessor, mainly because of the hard road taken to get there and the likely presence of uneasy bedfellows in the future parliament.

Daud Khattak is a Pashtun journalist currently working for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Pashto-language station Radio Mashaal. 

Daud Khattak is a senior editor of Radio Mashaal for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Twitter: @daudkhattak1