It is hard to understand how our political parties can continue their activities and grow in capacity and ability when leader after leader is being blown apart, leaving behind scenes of terrible carnage. This perhaps is especially true when such events occur in the run-up to an election.
There have been murderous attacks on important leaders of the ANP, BAP and the MMA in Peshawar, Mastung and Bannu respectively. Haroon Bilour has been added to the list of, at least, a hundred leaders of the ANP who have been killed in the last decade.
It is ironic that a party founded by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Bacha Khan, to advocate peace and follow the philosophy of Gandhi should meet with so much death. The murder of a brother has been followed by the murder of another brother; the murder of a father has been followed by the killing of a son. Major party leaders today find themselves with little choice but to barricade their homes and hope to remain safe inside them. Gates which once stood open in Peshawar and other places, symbolising the traditional hospitality of the region, are now guarded by armed personnel.
It is hardly comforting that the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) has informed the ECP at a high level meeting that the leaders of almost every major party are on the hit-list of terrorists. This is hardly encouraging. Other leaders of the ANP, including Asfandyar Wali – the current chief of the party – and former CM Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, are on that list. So are leaders of the PPP, PML-N, PTI and Qaumi Watan Party (QWP). More surprisingly, the name of Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s son, Talha Saeed, is also on the list. Even the attack on Akram Khan Durrani in Bannu was somewhat against people’s expectations. Durrani is a leader of the JUI-F which is currently a part of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal – a coalition of mainly religious groups. The TTP claimed responsibility of the attack.
The worst carnage was in Mastung, where we now know that around 150 people were killed alongside Siraj Ahmed Raisani – a candidate of the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) who was campaigning in his hometown. The BAP was set up in March this year after the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan was toppled. The suicide attack on the meeting being addressed by Raisani was the worst attack the country has seen. The bloodstains have seeped deep into the soil of a region that has experienced violence before, but perhaps never on such a scale.
There have been other attacks too, on an office of the BAP in Quetta, and it is impossible to say what lies ahead. The fact is that virtually since the country’s inception and the assassination of prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, one leader after the other has been slain. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Hayat Ahmed Sherpao and a multitude of others. It would take an entire Wikipedia page to list all the political leaders who have been killed.
The question is: how do parties keep up with their campaigns or follow through on policies when their leaders are suddenly removed from the scene? Certainly, we have seen the PPP flounder since the death of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. She, like others, has become another ghost from our past. But ghosts cannot play an active role in designing policies or leading people. They can perhaps inspire. But is that enough for us at this time?
When the authority officially assigned to tackle terrorism openly states that every top leader in the country is under threat, we should also be asking what kind of security cover is being given to our parties and how will the 2018 elections take place. While it is true that not every street corner can be manned nor can security personnel be appointed to guard every meeting, we also know that we have a vast and elaborate structure of intelligence agencies – at least this is what we are told. We would expect that by now groups such as the TTP – which have had a presence in Pakistan for at least a decade now – would have been infiltrated or, at least, a network of informants developed for prior information about their plans. This is, after all, what a state’s security apparatus does.
Two of the latest attacks were openly claimed by the TTP, which seems able to make press statements and yet evade being tracked down. Surely, good information and an overview of the developing events in various quarters would have prevented the bloodshed we saw in Mastung and possibly the attack on the BAP office in Quetta.
The attacks, of course, mean that a sense of terror now hangs over the upcoming elections. Every candidate will be afraid. They have good reason to be. The top anti-terrorist organisation in the country has itself said that any leader could be killed or targeted at any time. This is not a comforting situation. Nor does it suggest any degree of competence from those entrusted to ensure fair, trouble-free polls, in which everyone is able to campaign freely and openly. Right now, parties are reporting that they are reconsidering holding corner meetings in fear of suicide attacks.
Elections should not be about death. Democracy needs to be focused on life, continuity, welfare of all individuals and the ability of the state to safeguard all of this. As candidates are simply murdered mercilessly, their teenage children, in some cases, are left to make speeches as they stand over ambulances. This depicts a tragic state of affairs. The electoral process, like the broader democratic one it stands at the centre of, is all about there being a contact between the representatives and the people they represent.
The days when candidates openly visited houses, walked down streets and asked if they could be called in to discuss their plans have been long gone already. There are parties which have removed nameplates from their gates in order to avoid being hit. It is almost impossible for those who don’t have bulletproof vehicles or elaborate security to move among people. The decimation of parties, perhaps best exemplified by what has happened to the ANP, leaves voters with less choice and less freedom on who to vote for. In some parts of KP, supporters of the ANP have also been threatened. The same stands true for workers of the QWP.
This is a hugely alarming situation. The ECP did the right thing to call in Nacta to brief it on security. The question is: what can be done to prevent further violence in the days remaining till the polls as well as on the polling day? We were promised that the elections would take place in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. But from the scenes we witnessed in Peshawar, Mastung and Bannu, this does not seem to be the case.
There have also been smaller incidents of violence in Karachi, Lahore and other places. The mass arrests of the PML-N’s workers in Lahore as they attempted to proceed towards the airport to greet Nawaz Sharif led to multiple skirmishes with the police, and added to the wariness and unease. This is not the kind of environment that is conducive for elections.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.