Taliban try to fix Pakistan's poll by forgetting the Left

Politics in Pakistan are messy, but they don't have to be deadly. The federal government must not allow the Taliban to have the final word.

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On April 16, a suicide attack in Peshawar at a political rally for the Awami National Party (ANP) killed at least 17 people - including two children, a journalist and six police officials - and injured more than 50. Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) quickly claimed responsibility.

Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. There have been dozens of attacks on political parties and their candidates in the weeks leading up to May 11 elections. And this threatens to affect the outcome of the vote.

For the Pakistani Taliban, these general elections have become a threat to its radical agenda. The Taliban turned against the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) last year when the political party announced plans to hold a public referendum throughout the country urging people to vote on whether they want a Pakistan run by the Taliban, or the one envisioned by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wanted Pakistan to be democratic and progressive.

The ANP, one of the main political parties contesting the election, has lost over 700 of its activists, leaders and supporters to extremist attacks. In December, the Taliban killed Bashir Ahmad Bilour, the ANP leader and the second most senior member of the former provincial cabinet. Bilour was among nine people killed in a suicide bomb attack at another ANP meeting in Peshawar.

And last month, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), suddenly left the country for Dubai due to threats to his life. Bilawal's mother, the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by the Taliban in December 2007 at a pre-poll rally in Rawalpindi.

The Taliban's terror campaign this time against leftist parties may actually sway the outcome of the polls. By singling out liberal parties and targeting their candidates, the TTP is actually benefiting the religious and right-wing political parties, especially if it scares away the secular vote.

Secular parties have found no safe and secure environment to launch their election campaigns; threats to public safety have forced a scale-down of meetings and rallies.

Leftist parties, on the other hand, have resorted to door-to-door contacts for political mobilisation, and turned to social and electronic media for electioneering. Right-wing parties, meanwhile, have successfully held larger political gatherings as a part of their election campaign under tight security cover. For some reason, Taliban and other militants have left them alone.

This does not sound like fair play. All the claims made by the caretaker government to hold free, fair and transparent elections carry no weight when leftist political parties do not enjoy the freedom to hold large public meetings and rallies for security concerns.

Last year, right wing party leaders warned parliamentarians against tabling a resolution in the parliament to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, which is currently serving as sanctuary for Taliban and other extremists groups along the border with Afghanistan. Some political observers suggest leftist forces are being eliminated in favour of rightist extremists ahead of the election.

The Taliban's selective targeting won't last, however. Soon enough all political parties will be on the hit-list. That's because Pakistan's political parties, corrupt and nepotistic as they may be, still strive for change through ballots. Extremists use bullets.

In a recent statement, TTP spokesperson Eshanullah Ehsan said: "We have started a campaign to convince tribesmen that the current democratic system clashes with Shariah, and we do not accept it. We have revolted and do not accept this westernised democracy as it is against our religion."

Amid such dangerous rhetoric, all of Pakistan's civilian democratic forces must be committed to defeating militants by both political and military means.

On the first front, mainstream parties like the ANP, MQM and PPP theoretically have the tools to challenge the Taliban. Federal law now allows, for the first time, national parties to field candidates from tribal regions in the country's autonomous north-west. Of course, those that do still find it difficult to operate freely due to militancy and security concerns. So for now, the most pressing challenge is securing poll areas in places where likely voters are expected to turn out.

More options are available on the security side of the ledger. At present, the country lacks an effective counterterrorism policy to cope with the terrorist menace; one is needed, and urgently.

There is also no effective safety mechanism against suicide bomb attacks; it is past time to improve and modernise the intelligence-network to pre-empt such strikes.

What is urgently required, then, is the formation of a national antiterror body encompassing civilian, military, federal and provincial authorities under one umbrella, to coordinate all law enforcement agencies in the election protection process.

There is a federal body that could do this: the National Counter Terrorism Authority was stood up to coordinate law enforcement efforts in all provinces. This authority must immediately be mobilised to guard against Taliban efforts to derail the May 11 voting.

Politics in Pakistan are messy. But they don't have to be deadly. The federal government owes it to all Pakistanis to ensure that when voters cast ballots later this month, the Taliban doesn't get the final word.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is Pakistan-based development analyst author of The Economic Development of Balochistan

Online: syedfazlehaider.com