In a normal election, Faisal Sabzwari would be busy on the campaign trail, giving speeches at large rallies, glad-handing voters in his constituency and cruising through neighborhoods in a cavalcade of cars festooned with his party’s flags. But with polling day just three weeks away on May 11, the parliamentary candidate from the Karachi-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is doing his best to keep a low profile.
“I’m abstaining from major rallies,” says Sabzwari. “I’ve curtailed my physical presence. I’m not appearing everywhere.” Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies have told the MQM that Sabzwari and a dozen other members of the party are named on the Pakistani Taliban’s hit list. “I’ve also received threatening phone calls on my mobile.” He has reason to be worried. On April 10, Fakhrul Islam, an MQM candidate in Hyderabad, in the province of Sindh, was gunned down in an attack claimed by the Taliban. The next day, another MQM member, S.M. Shiraz, was gunned down in Karachi. “Since then, our party workers are being killed almost daily,” says Sabzwari.
For Pakistan’s avowedly secular and anti-Taliban political parties, the biggest challenge is not persuading voters of their worth, but staying alive. Before the current election season got under way, the Pakistani Taliban announced that they would attack politicians from the MQM, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and warned voters to stay away from their rallies. In recent weeks, the militants have mounted a series of vicious attacks on candidates, their supporters and their party offices.
As members of the outgoing ruling coalition, the three parties already faced an uphill task of defending a dismal record in government. In particular, the ANP and the PPP are the targets of a strong feeling of anti-incumbency as some of their leading candidates face widespread accusations of poor governance and corruption. But members of the three parties say that the attacks deny them a level playing field and reduce national campaigns to small door-to-door neighborhood efforts. At the same time, rival Islamist and right-wing parties are being given a clear advantage. The result, they warn, could be a Parliament willing to make perilous concessions to the Taliban and other militant groups.
“This is prepoll rigging,” says Bushra Gohar, a leading member of the ANP, which has faced the brunt of the attacks so far. “The Taliban are trying to get the secular liberal parties out. They don’t want voters to elect the next Parliament. They want to select it themselves.” In recent weeks, the ANP — a mostly secular Pashtun left-leaning party — has faced at least six major attacks. On April 16, one of its former ministers, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, and his nephew Haroon Ahmad Bilour cheated death as 16 people were killed after a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a party gathering in the northwest city of Peshawar. The Taliban said their target was the younger Bilour, the son of Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior provincial minister who was assassinated last December.
The sense of vulnerability has been heightened because of an unresponsive caretaker administration that is overseeing the elections. “The caretaker setup remains a mere spectator,” says Gohar. “Our leading members had only minimum security to begin with it, and it was withdrawn.” When the ANP handed over control of the provincial government to the caretaker administrators, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour and a former provincial minister, Iftikhar Hussain, found themselves unprotected. Hussain, who lost his only son to a bombing in 2010, faces a chilling threat from the Taliban. “They said, ‘We won’t just kill you, we’ll also skin you,’” recalls Gohar.
The caretaker administration, Gohar says, shouldn’t just provide protection but also eliminate the militants’ safe havens with the help of the intelligence agencies. There are particular concerns for the day of the elections. Standing in long queues outside polling booths, voters will be a soft target for militants. Any violence on May 11 could keep voters at home, potentially skewing results in affected areas. Despite being chastened in their strongholds by military offensives in recent years, the Taliban’s ability to strike in almost every part of the country remains undiminished.
As the secular parties take cover, their rivals are visibly taking advantage of a more open field. The Islamist parties are busily rousing large crowds with little worry. They are not only refusing to condemn the Taliban, but some candidates have even resorted to wild conspiracy theories that blame the U.S. for the violence. Other more mainstream parties, like the Pakistan Muslim League–N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Movement for Justice of former cricket legend Imran Khan, are staying quiet. The secular parties denounce the Islamists for being “pro-Taliban” and describe Sharif and Khan’s parties as “apologists” for the militants.
In the largest province of Punjab, Sharif and Khan are dominating the field. Each day, the two party leaders are at well-televised rallies of tens of thousands in multiple constituencies. At the same time, the outgoing ruling PPP is almost absent from a province where it has traditionally enjoyed significant support. “The last time around we had Benazir Bhutto to go out into the crowds and motivate our supporters,” says Sharmila Faruqi, a PPP member, “but she was martyred during the campaign.” Bhutto, twice a former Prime Minister, was assassinated in a gun-and-bomb attack just weeks before the 2008 elections. “This time, the threat is even greater.”
The PPP’s five years in power have inspired little confidence among broad sections of the electorate. In private, senior members say they face a struggle to win in the face of complaints of a dismal economy, lengthy power cuts and allegations of venality. They also appear rudderless now without a clear campaign leader. As President and head of state, Asif Ali Zardari — Bhutto’s widower — is supposed to stay neutral and cannot campaign. The PPP’s last two Prime Ministers are under a cloud of controversy. Yousaf Raza Gilani was sacked by the Supreme Court for refusing to ask Swiss authorities to reopen corruption charges against Zardari. And his successor, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, has been battling allegations that he pocketed kickbacks from his time as Pakistan’s Minister for Water and Power. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s son and political heir as chairman of the PPP, will be staying at home and addressing rallies through a recorded speech on video. “We can’t put the life of our chairman at risk,” says Faruqi. The PPP has been tapping the reserves of sympathy for Benazir with a poignant television ad that recalls her final moments.
In their speeches, Sharif and Khan have eschewed references to the Taliban, something they have long been criticized for. When Malala Yousafzai, the now world-famous teenage schoolgirl, was shot by the Taliban last year, Khan hesitated to condemn the militants by name. If he did condemn them by name, Khan told a TV interviewer, his supporters in the northwest would be vulnerable to attacks — much like the ANP. Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz, who was chief minister of Punjab province, sparked controversy in 2010 when he pleaded with the Taliban to spare Punjab its attacks because, like them, his party was opposed to U.S. policies in the region.
Sharif’s and Khan’s secular rivals say their silence is a cynical bid for safety during the elections. But even they are finding it difficult to evade a range of threats in this tense and insecure campaigning period. A member of Sharif’s party was targeted in Baluchistan in an attack that left his son, brother and nephew dead. A Baluch separatist group that wants to derail elections in the southwestern province claimed responsibility for the attack. And last week, Khan’s home outside Islamabad was attacked, albeit by disgruntled members of his own party.
For Gohar of the ANP, her party’s opposition to the Taliban is a matter of principle. “We have clarity,” she says. “We are openly liberal and secular. We understand we need to deal with this problem.” But if anyone thinks they can come to power and remain immune to threats, she adds, they are dangerously mistaken.
This story was made possible in part by the International Reporting Project.