Amid continuing doubts that the election in Pakistan will be held at all, determined contestants are finding their canvassing hemmed in by Taliban threats and attacks

Less than three weeks away from the scheduled date of polling, doubts persist on whether elections will be held at all though the stakeholders are busy preparing for the day of reckoning. With the newly empowered Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and several election watchdogs watching poll expenditure like a hawk, the trappings are not out in full force though parties are expected to lay it on thick as May 11 draws closer.

However, by all accounts, this will be the shortest campaign season that even the “controlled democracy” of Pakistan has ever seen. Though the country went into election mode on March 16 when the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led coalition stepped down as per schedule to make way for a caretaker set-up, electioneering has begun in right earnest only this past weekend after there was clarity on candidatures following a scrutiny process that raised many an eyebrow.

Scrutiny

Like the warning of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to people to stay away from rallies of the PPP, the Awami National Party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) as they would be attacked, a threat that has been followed through several times in the past weeks, the scrutiny of candidates on the basis of the exacting standards prescribed in Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution has been seen as pre-poll rigging.

And, both weighed heavily against the “secular” parties though even former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif of the right-of-the-centre Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had to deal with a complaint of violating Articles 62 and 63 — for not sporting a beard like a “good Muslim” should.

There was also an attempt to see if the candidates were able to say their prayers properly.

Not all returning officers (RO) asked such questions. By all indications, there was no official order from the ECP to carry out a scrutiny that involved questions of a personal nature. However, the ECP did not step in till the Lahore High Court ordered the ROs not to conduct such an inquisition with self-made subjective questions.

This kind of questioning that blurred the distinction between sin and crime was seen by many as “Zia-era vigilantism and disguised return” to the military dictator’s “accountability before elections” mantra. The persistence of the judiciary and the media with the “fake degrees cases” was also seen by civil society as an attempt to keep alive another dictator, Pervez Musharraf’s legacy though the law mandating that only graduates can contest elections has been removed from the statue books.

While bringing in this law, the Musharraf regime “arbitrarily declared madrassah sanads (certificates) as equivalent to graduate degrees to enable their reactionary supporters to take control of the parliamentary process,” said a statement by leading lights of Pakistan’s civil society including I.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and economist Kaiser Bengali. “The ruthless application of Articles 62 and 63 combined with the equally ruthless proceedings in the matter of ‘fake’ degrees appears to be tantamount to paving the way again for the right-wing religious elements to control Parliament.”

This apprehension gained further currency when the TTP began putting threat to action and the latest report is that 55 individuals charged for terrorism were in the fray in the politically-decisive province of Punjab alone. While the ANP has till now borne the brunt of TTP’s agenda with rallies being bombed with regular frequency, the PPP and the MQM are also facing the music in Karachi, making not just the affected troika but several opinion-makers cry foul and press on for a level playing field to all parties.

Refusing to be cowed down by the terrorist attacks, the ANP has persisted with its campaign. The party’s clarion call is “watan ya kafan (country or coffin”) and the determination displayed by the ANP leadership in the face of piling bodies has drawn it grudging respect from even some of its most bitter critics.

Whether this will translate into votes is anyone’s guess, but people of Peshawar saw a visible increase in the number of ANP flags on rooftops despite pamphlets being circulated in the city against putting up the party colours. After seeing a noticeable increase in red flags (the ANP’s colour), Ijaz Khan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, quipped on Twitter: “Pakhtuns doing Pakhto (the way of the Pashtuns).”

Nevertheless, the threats and attacks have hemmed the parties in their campaign. The ANP president, Afsandayar Wali, has been criticised for not visiting his constituency, Charsadda, but his counter is that he stays away to keep his people safe as the TTP has threatened to kill him. Leaders generally remain safe in case of an attack but people become collateral damage, he pointed out in an interview to Radio Pakistan.

The MQM shutdown its campaign offices for a day this week after an attack on an election camp office which killed two and injured 18. Having lost its leader Benazir Bhutto during the run-up to the last elections, the PPP is not taking any chances but at the risk of being criticised for being practically invisible on the campaign trail. It is trying to make do with an advertisement blitzkrieg that particularly seeks to address criticism over the crippling power shortage that could become decisive in an election held in peak summer.

Anti-incumbency

In fact, the odds are stacked up considerably against the PPP. This is the first time the party is going into an election without a Bhutto in the fray as PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has not yet come of age in the literal sense. Several intelligence inputs point to a clear and present danger to his life and so he kicked off the party’s campaign with a video message.

His father and President, Asif Ali Zardari, cannot lead the campaign because a court case forced him to abandon his visible political activities as long as he remained First Citizen. People who have visited the PPP’s pocket-borough, Sindh, maintained that the party’s campaign was nowhere to be seen, even in the Bhutto family’s ancestral place of Larkana.

This just adds to the disenchantment with the party that is facing a huge anti-incumbency factor, raising the possibility of PPP’s supporters abstaining. While the party’s campaign managers insist that candidates are relying on door-to-door campaigning and street-corner meetings instead of big ticket rallies in view of the security threat, the undercurrent in Sindh is that the PPP no longer is the Pakistan Peoples Party but a party of “Peeu, Putu and Phuppi (father, son and paternal aunt”)! This is a clear dig at the Zardari family’s stranglehold over Bhutto’s party as phuppi is a reflection of Mr. Zardari’s sister Faryal Talpur’s say in decision-making.

Of the mainstream parties, the PML(N) and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are having a fairly easy ride as they are not on the terrorists’ hit list. And, eager to keep it that way, both parties have been slow to speak out against the attacks on their political rivals. Even when the condemnation came it has been feeble, bringing up Martin Niemöller’s Holocaust poem “First They Came…” yet again as democracy itself is an alien construct in the terrorists’ mindscape.

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