A taxing mix, again

November 12, 2023

Factors that could influence electoral participation in the upcoming election

A taxing mix, again


f one were to go by the current security and political situation, as well as the history of previous elections, the recent spike in incidents of terrorism and violence along with societal polarisation and political victimisation could pose serious challenges for electoral participation in the upcoming general elections, scheduled for February 8.

Pakistan is suffering the worst law and order situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and some parts of the Punjab and Sindh, where Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has lately been targeting the armed forces and police. Regular attacks on security forces suggest that the TTP could also try to sabotage the elections in Pakistan since it calls elections for democracy “un-Islamic.”

The past three elections in the country have witnessed a streak of terror attacks that claimed the lives of Pakistan Peoples Party’s chairperson Benazir Bhutto in 2007; Awami National Party’s senior leader Bashir Bilour in 2013 and his son Haroon Bilour in 2018; Balochistan Awami Party’s Nawabzada Siraj Raisani in 2018; and several others belonging to the ANP, the PPP, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl.

In 2013, election campaigning in much of the country was marred by violence. From January 1, 2013 to April 30, 2013, terror attacks on political personalities and political activities killed at least 118 people and injured 494.

One must make a note of the difference in regular violence in Pakistan vis-à-vis the violence caused ahead of or during elections. The frequency and intensity of violence in the 2013 elections had reached a new level altogether. Who were the perpetrators and who the victims?

On March 18, 2013, Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesperson for the TTP declared elections part of an “un-Islamic democratic system which only serves the interests of infidels and enemies of Islam,” and warned voters to stay away from political rallies organised by major coalition partners in the outgoing government, particularly the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. On April 28, the TTP again declared that it “had decided to target the secular political parties that were part of the previous coalition government.”

During those days, this scribe talked to the then-TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid. When asked why the TTP was targeting the ANP, the PPP and the MQM, he had responded, “We won’t let them campaign because these are the parties of the infidels.” When asked about the TTP’s policy regarding the PML-N and the PTI, he had said, “Right now, they are not on our agenda. We will see them later.”

As a result of the attacks, the participation of the three parties in the election process was badly affected. They could not campaign for their candidates.

The elections in 2018 were also eclipsed by the TTP attacks, which claimed the lives of ANP’s Haroon Bilour, BAP’s Siraj Raisani and several others from the ANP and the JUI-F.

From July 10 to July 25, 2018, attacks on political party candidates killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds.

Observing the violence in 2018, Brad Adams, the Asia director of the Human Rights Watch, issued a statement expressing grave concern about Pakistan’s security situation and electoral process. He said, “The Taliban and other militants have killed and injured hundreds of people in their quest to disrupt Pakistan’s elections.”

“The upcoming elections could be severely compromised unless the government and security forces take immediate measures to ensure that all parties can campaign freely, without fear.”

Come 2023, the situation is not all that good either. Already several PPP and PML-N leaders have received threats and the ANP is under constant attacks by the TTP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where its leaders are being targeted in hit-and-run attacks. The JUI, too, has been attacked. Its chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, survived a bomb attack a few months ago.

In January 2023, the TTP issued a warning not only to the PPP but also to the PML-N and some religious parties. In a statement, the TTP spokesman had said, “The TTP is considering taking concrete steps against the PPP and the PML-N, the two major parties of the ruling coalition.”

It further read, “If these two parties don’t budge and continue to remain slaves to the army, then action will be taken against their leaders. People should not get close to them.”

The TTP has said that its battlefield is Pakistan and that it is targeting security agencies. “For long, the TTP has not taken action against any political party. Unfortunately, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has given the US the status of his mother and has openly declared war against the TTP.”

The statement had said, “Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has also pushed his party into the war against the TTP to please the US.” Without naming more names, the TTP warned the religious political leadership (part of the government): “Action against them is not part of TTP’s policy but we request them not to be part of any activities against us.”

The statement indicates that the TTP could target the PPP, the PML-N, the ANP, the MQM and the JUI-F. Political parties fear that their candidates will have to be more cautious in running their election campaigns and that this could impact results.

On the other hand, political victimisation in the form of registration of cases against PTI leaders is at its peak. PTI chairman Imran Khan, vice chairman Shah Mehmood Qureshi and president Chaudhry Parvez Elahi are in jail. Many PTI stalwarts have been arrested in cases related to May 9-violence. After being released, some of them have either announced they are quitting politics or have joined the newly formed parties like Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party in the Punjab and the PTI-Parliamentarians in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Some might call it a repeat of the pre-election scenes of 2002 and 2018. In 2002, Gen Musharraf’s aides had used similar tactics to herd away electables from the PPP and the PML-N to the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid. Those who did not take a break, had had to face corruption cases. Many had succumbed to pressure. In 2018, the PPP, PML-N and ANP leaders in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were under similar pressure. Many were pressured or threatened by police and other security forces and told to join the PTI.

The use of underhand tactics to push political activists of a party towards another produces a system where turncoats get their share in the power and, once their tenure is over, buckle up to join another government, thus denying genuine political activists meaningful participation in the electoral process.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and analyst. His X handle: @BukhariMubasher

A taxing mix, again