Taliban Violence Mars Pakistan's Elections
On May 11, 2013, Pakistanis voted in an election that will mark the country’s first ever peaceful transition of power from one democratic government to the next, following the previous government’s unprecedented completion of its full five-year term. Pakistani voters displayed courage in coming out to vote in record numbers despite the real threat of militant attack. But the Pakistani Taliban appears to have had a tangible impact on the election’s outcome, particularly through its use of pre-poll violence. While the magnitude of the Taliban’s impact upon the final result can be debated, the fact that the group appears to have achieved an outcome it considers desirable, assisted by the prolific use of targeted violence, evidences Pakistan’s continuing instability and demonstrates the Taliban’s capacity to negatively influence the state’s trajectory.
A Different Sort of Electoral Campaign
The three-week campaign period leading up to polls on May 11 was the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history. According to a Pakistani government report, 81 people were killed and 437 people were wounded in over 119 violent incidents between April 20, when campaigning officially began, and May 9, when a campaign blackout was instituted. Violence continued through the end of the campaign season: on May 9, the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was kidnapped by suspected Taliban militants; on May 10, militants killed three people and wounded 15 when they bombed political offices in North Waziristan agency in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and wounded five more in Quetta, Balochistan province in a grenade attack.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was responsible for the majority of the violence. The TTP is the main Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan and is the principal enemy of the Pakistani state. Its objective is the overthrow of the Pakistani state and its replacement with an Islamic emirate governed by its conception of Sharia law. The group sees democracy as anathema to Islam and has carried out attacks aimed at derailing Pakistan’s democratic elections. It is also openly supportive of al Qaeda.
The group has been far from impartial in its attacks, however. The TTP focused its pre-poll violence primarily on three political parties: the formerly-ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP). All three are considered to be “secular” parties, and were coalition partners in the previous government. The TTP not only sees them as embodiments of a heretical system of government, but also holds them responsible for numerous military operations conducted against the Taliban across northwest Pakistan over the government’s past, five-year term.
The ANP, a Pashtun nationalist party strongest in northwest Pakistan that operates in closest proximity to the TTP’s safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Pashtun neighborhoods in the southern city of Karachi, bore a particularly heavy share of the violence. Over half the people killed in the campaign’s 20-day period were ANP supporters or functionaries. Dozens more have died in bombings and targeted attacks in the months running up to the polls. A Taliban suicide bomber assassinated a top leader of the ANP, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, on December 22, 2012 at a campaign rally outside Bilour’s house. The party’s leadership maintained a covert profile after that attack; the party’s leader barely campaigned at all, spending much of his time in Islamabad, hundreds of miles from his constituency, trying to conduct his campaign by phone. In Karachi, Pakistan’s southern metropolis, the ANP’s traditionally strong presence among the city’s significant Pashtun minority has been systematically undercut by the TTP. The TTP has launched attacks on poll workers and election offices, removed party posters and flags and forced the ANP to retreat from Pashtun neighborhoods across the city. Where the ANP has campaigned, it has tended to maintain a low profile and limit itself to small corner gatherings or house-to-house visits.
The case has been similar with the MQM, the traditionally dominant party in Karachi. Party workers, election offices and campaign rallies have been attacked by the TTP. Whereas the MQM is normally used to having the run of the city, it severely curtailed its campaign activities prior to May 11. The PPP has also come under Taliban attack in northwest Pakistan and Karachi. The party’s chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, fled to Dubai before the polls and refused to appear at the head of campaign rallies except by video link out of fear for his security. PPP stalwarts privately admit that Bilawal’s absence has had a deeply negative impact on morale and campaign activities, and PPP supporters’ desires to see known party leaders show up at rallies have largely gone unfulfilled.
By contrast, the Taliban appears to have specifically avoided targeting certain parties. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were both spared the violence visited upon their main rivals and were able to campaign relatively openly around the country. Both parties are seen as more “right-wing” and “conservative” than the PPP, ANP or MQM; they have called for peace talks with the Taliban, and said they will bring an end to Pakistan’s participation in what they call America’s war on terror. Neither party dares deviate from its soft stance on the Taliban for fear of inviting militant attack. The PML-N, for its part, has also maintained disconcerting alliances with radical right-wing political groups in Pakistan that are widely believed to be fronts for terrorist groups. The PML-N’s closeness to Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, the new incarnation of sectarian terrorist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), is one such example. In fact, one person who campaigned and won a seat in parliament on a PML-N ticket in Punjab province is a convicted murderer with known ties to the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The PML-N was not spared violence entirely. It came under attack on a number of occasions in Balochistan province where there is an ongoing irredentist movement seeking independence from what it sees as a Punjab-dominated Pakistan. The PML-N has traditionally been a Punjab-centric party and, as a result, is a popular target for Baloch separatists. Baloch rebels also singled out what they view as treasonous Baloch nationalist parties that have chosen to take part in elections. It is not clear if this violence was locally-spawned or conducted at the behest of the TTP.
Threat of Violence on Election Day
The TTP’s impact on campaigning was clear. Its attacks cowed a number of parties into seriously limiting their poll campaigns and likely impacted their prospects at the ballot box. The TTP also indicated the seriousness with which it intended to attack not just some political parties but the democratic system as a whole, and promised to launch major attacks across the country on election day in the hopes of derailing the polls.
TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud instructed the group to launch attacks in all four provinces, in a letter to the group’s central spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, on May 1. He said “We [the TTP] don't accept the system of infidels which is called democracy….I will keep control of the attacks in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, while you should cover Sindh and Punjab.” Mehsud expressed his hopes that TTP commanders would “be busy working against the agents of an ‘infidel system.’”
“I am sending a list of attacks and the modus operandi, along with a separate list of fidayeen (suicide bombers),” Mehsud wrote, while building into his instructions allowances for TTP commanders to “prescribe amendments” to plans of action following consultations with the leadership.
The TTP released fliers in many parts of the country warning people against voting or taking part in the election process. It threatened attacks upon teachers who had been assigned to man polling stations, showing its intent not just to hamper campaigning or intimidate potential voters, but also to disrupt the polling mechanism in the hopes of calling the results into question.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan and the army, over 600,000 security personnel—most of them civilian—were assigned to provide security to polling sites across the country. However, even at sites labeled as “most sensitive,” no more than ten security personnel were to be present. Given that security forces were to be spread across more than 70,000 polling stations, security at most sites was relatively thin. The presence of state security forces could arguably have made polling stations even more inviting targets for attack. Attacks on rallies, security forces or candidates would intimidate people into not voting. Successful attacks on polling stations would have the same impact, in addition to disrupting the polling process itself.
Violence on Election Day
The level of violence on May 11, however, stood in stark contrast to that the TTP had executed in the run-up to polling. While The TTP was able to conduct a number of successful attacks on May 11, the number, lethality and overall impact of attacks were lower than people had come to expect.
A TTP bomb attack on an ANP election office in Quaidabad, Karachi killed 11 people and wounded 35 others—the deadliest single attack on election day. Another smaller bomb attack on a bus carrying ANP workers killed one person. In the Manghopir area of Karachi, two Rangers personnel were killed and five people injured in a suicide bomb attack. In the Killi Shabo area of Quetta, Balochistan, one person was killed and eight were injured in a grenade attack by unknown individuals. Also in Balochistan, two people were killed in firing by unknown individuals on a polling station in Kalat, and one person died and seven were wounded in a landmine blast. In Kuchlak, a grenade attack on an ANP office injured five. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, arguably the part of the country most at risk, one person was killed and nine injured in two separate bomb blasts in Sheikh Muhammad and Larama on the outskirts of Peshawar. Five people were wounded in an explosion near a school in Takkar. Two people were also killed and six were wounded in an improvised explosive device attack on a police van in Mashokhel. Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa reported defusing four bombs, two in Mardan, one in Hangu and one in Bannu.
Despite the violence, however, Pakistan witnessed a record 60 percent voter turnout. Voters appeared not to be cowed by the threat or occurrence of election violence. In Karachi, the worst-hit city, voters appeared in droves at polling stations across the city well into the evening.
Delivery at the Ballot Box
As encouraging as the scenes of democratic participation on May 11 were, however, the election’s outcome matches the result the TTP was hoping to achieve. The parties it targeted were decimated at the ballot box. The formerly-ruling PPP had its legs cut out from under it, going from holding 110 seats in 2008 to just 31. The ANP lost all but one of its ten seats in the center and, even more traumatic for the party, entirely lost its hold on its home turf in Pashtun-dominated Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The party bagged only five provincial seats in comparison to its dominating 48-seat haul in 2008. While the MQM was not as heavily affected in its Karachi bastion, it took 16 National Assembly seats—three fewer than in 2008—only amid huge protests, and substantial evidence, of vote rigging in its favor. By contrast, the PML-N romped to a clear victory in the National and Punjab Assemblies and the PTI came in second at the center and took control of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Overall, the outcome was not unexpected. The PPP, ANP and MQM coalition was expected to suffer heavily at the polls, TTP violence notwithstanding, due to the shoddy reputation it had made for itself during a disastrous five years in power. It is arguable that the results may have been similar had the TTP not targeted those three parties in particular. However, given the level of violence prior to voting, and the stark contrasts between the very real constraints those parties faced in canvassing and the uninhibited, carnival-like atmospheres of PML-N and PTI rallies, it is very likely the TTP’s parallel campaign did have some tangible impact on the final result.
In either case, regardless of whether the final result can be directly tied back to the TTP, it certainly appears as if the TTP was able to achieve its desired outcome through its attacks campaign. The TTP will claim to have beaten its enemies into defeat, and allowed those parties which appear to have more conciliatory approaches towards the TTP and more hard-nosed attitudes towards assisting the U.S. in the war on terror to come to the fore. While the TTP may itself fall victim to the fickleness of Pakistani politicians and their campaign promises, the degree to which those parties follow through on their commitments to negotiate with the TTP is not as important as the fact that the wrong signals have already been transmitted to friend and foe alike: the TTP is able, through its use of violence, to defeat its enemies, ensure victory for those whom it favors, and is able, therefore, to have an outsize impact on the trajectory of the country. It paints both the TTP and its methodology as winners, and that narrative dangerously undermines the democratic process that these elections were supposed to help cement in Pakistan.
What Victory Looks Like for the Enemy
The TTP’s impact on elections in Pakistan has already been clearly visible. Its attacks have, intentionally or otherwise, helped amplify the voice of conservative parties that claim to seek to part Pakistan from its alliance with the U.S. and to open peace talks with the Taliban. The PML-N, in addition, has a disconcerting history of maintaining relationships with groups that are fronts for, or linked to, domestic and regional terrorist groups.
Already the TTP is looking to capitalize on the outcome of the election. Late on May 14, TTP central spokesman Ehsan stated that the TTP would not rule out the possibility of declaring a ceasefire if the new government showed “seriousness” towards the group’s offer to pursue dialogue. He elaborated: “I cannot say now that we are stopping attacks but there could be a possibility of stopping attacks as a goodwill gesture once the new government takes some serious steps.”
Such an offer would be very enticing for the new government—an opportunity to show voters almost immediately that they are able to deliver peace upon coming to power. It will take great courage on the new government’s behalf to pursue the more pragmatic approach and to refuse such silvered temptations. The preceding government discovered, to its ultimate detriment, that peace deals with the Taliban are fleeting affairs that only embolden the militants and strengthen their capacity to inflict violence once the ceasefire inevitably fails. The great irony is that on this occasion, the throngs of Pakistanis who defied the threat of Taliban violence to vote on May 11 would be better served if their victorious politicians were to break their campaign promises instead. Doing so would deny the TTP the election victory it currently is able to claim.