With violence against the mainstream political parties escalating, initial Pakistani excitement about the upcoming national elections is beginning to give way to fear that bombs, not ballots, will have the greatest impact on the outcome.
Over the last several weeks, Pakistani observers have touted the fact that for the first time in the country’s history, a democratically-elected government had lasted its full five-year term. There were even hints of cautious optimism that democracy was finally becoming more entrenched. However, the recent assassination of two mainstream candidates and the bombing of an election rally on Tuesday have dampened expectations that the May 11 elections will usher in a new era of stability for the ethnically divided, sectarianism-ravaged and terrorism-afflicted country.
The United States is rightly taking a low-key approach to relations with Pakistan at the moment to avoid becoming a central issue in the middle of the election fray. As part of this effort, Washington has slowed controversial drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal border areas over the last several months. An exception was made on April 17, however, when a U.S. drone fired missiles at a Pakistani Taliban training camp, killing at least five militants.
Curiously, the day before the drone attack, the Pakistani Taliban (also referred to as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) denied any connection to the Boston marathon bombings. The immediate denial of involvement shows the TTP is worried about U.S. retribution, particularly in the form of drones, which have become America’s most important tool to disrupt terrorist bases along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The TTP was linked to the attempted car bombing in Times Square in May 2010, as well as to the attack against the CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan in December 2009, which killed seven CIA officers.
Drone strikes often provoke Pakistani anger and outrage against America. Yet the latest attacks may have been welcomed (albeit quietly) by Pakistan’s civilian leadership, which is being directly targeted by the Pakistani Taliban. The TTP announced they would attack politicians from mainstream parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP). The TTP made good on its threat on April 16 when it conducted a suicide attack at an election rally attended by senior ANP leader Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, who served as railways minister in the PPP government.
The TTP recently took responsibility for the shooting death of MQM candidate Fakhural Islam in the southern city of Hyderabad. The TTP spokesman said the killing was part of a “war with secular parties…which committed genocide of our tribal people and Muslims while remaining in power for five years.” In another attack on April 14, a roadside bomb blasted the convoy of ANP provincial-assembly candidate Masoom Shah, wounding him and several of his aides.
The TTP is not only targeting candidates but has also vowed to attack voting booths to deter Pakistanis from exercising their right to the franchise. The government has declared that more than 70 percent of polling stations in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the nearby tribal border areas are at risk of attack.
As if the violence is not enough to deter liberal-leaning politicians, members of Pakistan’s judiciary also are making it difficult for candidates they do not consider to have strong enough religious credentials to run in the elections. There are reports that Islamist-leaning officials within the Pakistani judiciary are using articles of the Constitution that were passed during Islamist dictator Zia ul-Haq’s rule of Pakistan in the 1980s to weed out candidates they do not consider pious Muslims.
According to media accounts, election officers have asked candidates to recite specific verses from the Koran and prove that they pray five times a day. A well-known Pakistani columnist, Ayaz Amir, was disqualified from running for office because he had written articles considered contrary to the “Islamic ideology of Pakistan.”
Pakistan was established as a homeland for Muslims in 1947 when the British departed the Subcontinent, and India and Pakistan gained their independence. Muhammed Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, supported the idea of Islam serving as a unifying force in the newly established Pakistani state, but he envisioned the country functioning as a multireligious and multiethnic democratic state.
There has been an overall rise in religious intolerance in Pakistan, especially within the last two years. The January 2011 reaction to the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer indicates that Pakistan is rapidly moving away from Jinnah’s vision for the country and that support for extremist ideologies is gaining traction within Pakistani society. The assassin admitted he killed Taseer because of the latter’s support for reform of antiblasphemy laws, which are often misused against religious minorities.
The day after Taseer’s assassination, several hundred Pakistani clerics signed a statement condoning the murder and warning other Pakistanis against grieving for the governor. Two months later, minority-affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was also gunned down because of his support for amending the blasphemy laws.
Last month three thousand Muslims stormed a Christian enclave in the city of Lahore, burning down an estimated one hundred and sixty homes, because of an accusation of blasphemy made against a Christian man from the neighborhood.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom will release its 2013 Annual Report on Pakistan later this month and is likely to call on the United States to designate Pakistan a “a country of particular concern” because of its violations of religious freedom. Such a designation is long overdue.
The United States may have calculated that keeping a low profile during Pakistan’s election campaign will help keep anti-American sentiment from negatively influencing the Pakistani election outcome. But American officials must weigh this compulsion with the reality that moderate and liberal Pakistani leaders rely on the U.S. to actively promote democratic ideals, such as freedom of speech and religion, rule of law, and respect for a credible and fair electoral process. The campaign season in Pakistan has taken some alarming turns, raising questions about whether the electoral process—rather than raising the voice of the Pakistani people—is contributing to silencing those who shun extremist ideologies.
-Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in National Interest.