Pakistan is bracing for the general elections on July 25 after a week of bombings targeting political rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces have spread fears of more violence and a thorny power transition.
The attacks have claimed more than 170 lives, including prominent candidates Haroon Bilour and Siraj Raisani, in a campaign that had been thus far peaceful. One attack alone, on July 13 at a rally of the Balochistan Awami Party, killed 129 people and injured dozens. This was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since Taliban shooters killed 141 in an army-run school in Peshawar, in December 2014.
The 208-million strong nation will elect 342 seats at the National Assembly, with the conservative Pakistan Muslim League hoping to secure a majority for a second term. The party was shaken in 2017 after its founder and then Prime Minister was convicted of buying apartments in London by illegally siphoning money from Pakistan, a scandal revealed by the Panama Papers investigation.
The Muslim League is also bound to face fierce competition from the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) party.
The recent attacks triggered memories of the 2013 elections, when suicide bombings frequently targeted political rallies, killing more than 200 people, 64 on election day itself. The Pakistani Taliban, who claimed most of the attacks, targeted primarily secular political parties, such as the Pakistan People’s Party, the Awami National Party, and the Mohajir Muttahida Quami Movement. The threats of violence prompted the three parties to curtail their public campaign gatherings and resorted to campaigning via social media.
Nevertheless, the 2013 elections resulted in a smooth power transition between the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz’ Pakistan Muslim League. Prior to 2008, no democratic government had completed its five years in office in Pakistan.
Militant violence has also declined in recent years after a military offensive in the North-West, where groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Islam, al-Qaeda, and the ISIL-Khorasan operate. However, some still manage to launch attacks with help from across the border in Afghanistan.
Timeline of the pre-poll violence
July 3, 2018: An explosion in Razmak city, in the North Waziristan Agency, left 10 seriously injured and many more wounded. They had been attending the inauguration of the campaign headquarters of Malik Aurangzeb Khan, a candidate with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
July 7, 2018: An explosion at a campaign rally of the far-right party Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (United Council of Action) in the city of Takhti Khel, in the North-West, injured seven people, including the party's leader and contender Malik Sherein. Initial reports revealed that explosives were planted on a motorcycle which exploded near the convoy.
July 10, 2018: A suicide bomber killed the leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), Barrister Haroon Bilour, killed and 19 other people in a small public gathering in the city of Peshawar. Bilour was the son of Bashir Ahmed Bilour, a senior ANP figure who was himself killed in a suicide attack in 2012 at a rally. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the suicide blast.
Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa condemned the assassination of Haroon Bilour:
COAS shares grief of Bilour family & ANP on condemnable targeting of Haroon Bilour & victims of heinous terrorist attk.“We are fighting against nexus of inimical forces which aren’t willing to absorb a peaceful & stable Pakistan. We remain undeterred & shall IA defeat them” COAS.
— Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor (@OfficialDGISPR) July 11, 2018
The ANP, which governed the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province from 2008 to 2013, has been relentlessly targeted by militant groups operating in the North-West. Dozens of ANP supporters, as well as party leaders, were killed over the 2013 election.
July 13, 2018: An explosion at a rally in the North-Western city of Bannu has killed at least four people and wounded 32. The rally was being hosted by former provincial chief minister Akram Khan Durrani, who is running for a seat in Pakistan's upcoming polls. Durrani wasn't hurt in the blast.
July 13, 2018: In the South-West town of Dringarh, about 35km south of the Balochistan provincial capital Quetta, a suicide attacker targeted a rally of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), killing at least 129 people and injuring dozens. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the bombing, without providing any evidence for such.
Among those killed was Siraj Raisani, who was running for the Balochistan provincial assembly and was considered to be the beating heart of provincial politics.
The bombing was the deadliest attack in Pakistan since militants from the Pakistani Taliban assaulted an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014, killing 141 people, 132 of them children.
July 16, 2018: The leader of the Awami National Party, Daud Khan Achakzai, narrowly escaped death after armed men shot at him at a guest house in Chaman, also in Balochistan province. He received two gunshots on his right arm. The attackers fled the crime scene leaving the leader injured.
On social media, people have contemplated the motives behind the attacks:
#Violence returned to #Pakistan as soon as the #election campaign began. Some say it's an attempt to sabotage the election process. What could the #terrorists possibly have to gain from postponement of election in Pakistan? pic.twitter.com/sgo8nYsZQO
— NayaDaur (@nayadaurpk) July 17, 2018
Umair Javed at an Op-ed in The Dawn writes:
Intimidation tactics and violence, often in connivance with local state officials, are frequently deployed at the community level to prevent or force a recalibration of voting blocs and changes in electoral outcomes.
What makes this trend particularly salient in 2018 is the heightened sense of competition that will likely take place due to the consolidation of opposing powerful candidates in two (PML-N [The Muslim League] vs PTI [Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf — Movement for Justice], or PML-N vs independent), rather than three or four camps. In marginal seats, each and every voting bloc is important, and violence has long been documented as a powerful way to either break up or collectivize a vote bank.
To protect the polling booths, Pakistan’s army will deploy about 371,000 troops on election day, almost three times the number in 2013. Will it be enough to prevent more election violence?