Pakistan’s brutal elections
One day, a 10-year-old girl died. The next, a seven-year-old boy. The victims of the relentless attacks on election meetings in Pakistan are so very rarely named that you have to start counting the ages of the children to give some kind of human meaning to the deaths.
More than 50 people have been killed ahead of elections on May 11 that should have been a milestone in the country’s history, the first time a democratically elected government completed its term and handed power to another through the polls. Instead it has turned into a bewildering bloodbath where a mother or father taking their child out to watch history being made cannot be sure of bringing them home alive.
At one level, the violence is neither without meaning nor bewildering.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, have given it a very specific meaning. They have said repeatedly they will attack the Peshawar-based Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which has its roots in Sindh province, and the Karachi-based Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM). They have been as good as their word. All three have been bombed, although the ANP, the last clear line of Pashtun resistance to the Pakistani Taliban, has borne the brunt. Since all three oppose the Taliban, the TTP is making it harder for them to bring out their voters or hold political rallies, effectively trying to rig what should have been a free and fair election in favour of right-wing parties more sympathetic to their cause.
The TTP have also been specific about what they want – the implementation of sharia (presumably their interpretation of it) throughout Pakistan. TTP spokesman Eshsanullah Ehsan, speaking to Dawn newspaper, also made clear that they would not stop with the three parties currently under attack.
“We are against the secular and democratic system which is against the ideology of Islam but we are not expecting any good from the other parties either, who are the supporters of the same system, but why they are not targeted is our own prerogative to decide,” the spokesman told Dawn.
At another level, the deaths are both meaningless and bewildering.
The election will be decided in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, where the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif faces a fierce fight against the Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (PTI) led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. (The PPP, which led the outgoing coalition government, is hoping the two will damage each other enough to allow it to scrape by with a respectable number of seats.)
Both the PML-N and PTI have a reputation of being soft on the Taliban and Punjab has largely been spared the violence seen elsewhere. As a result, those dying outside Punjab are being killed in an election which is not theirs to decide – at least not at the national level. All three parties have insisted that the elections must go ahead. Yet there is an element of martyrdom creeping in
.Democracy was supposed to usher in a more pluralistic Pakistan, whereby the country’s different ethnic groups and provinces would find ways of negotiating a fair share of power and resources without violence. It was meant to provide a transition away from a centralised military-run state to one which, in the long run, would be more stable by incorporating everyone. Instead, the elections, and the geographical unevenness of the TTP attacks, have emphasised the dominance of Punjab. The resentment created will haunt Pakistan for years – the loss of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was triggered by the effective disenfranchisement of voters there after elections in 1970.
And despite the very clear statements by the TTP, much of the country remains bewildered about who they are and what they want.
For years, Pakistanis in the heartland have been coached on a narrative that militant violence was an overspill from the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and, more recently, caused by the use of drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is as though pre 9/11 history – when jihad was exported to Kashmir and Afghanistan rather than causing trouble at home – does not exist.
That narrative has been accompanied by an Orientalist view of the people of FATA (assumed to be backward, riled up by drones, and politically not allowed to speak for themselves) that allowed many Pakistanis, wrongly, to equate them with the TTP. Few pay attention to what the Pakistani Taliban themselves say they are – a loose grouping of Pakistanis, including Punjabis, allied with Afghan fighters, among them the Haqqani network, and al Qaeda.
The TTP have never said they will end violence if Pakistan severs relations with the United States and stops drone attacks in FATA. They have said they want their view of how Pakistan should be run imposed on the whole country, one in which democracy has no place. Yet still the PML-N and PTI are hedging their bets. Either out of opportunism or lack of understanding, neither have come out and openly condemned the Taliban. The PML-N has a long history of accommodation with sectarian groups in Punjab. Imran Khan – who for years has insisted that TTP violence is a response to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its use of drones – has pleaded with the TTP to end its attacks until the elections are over.
The TTP have been remarkably clever; they have sown fresh tensions in the country between Punjab and elsewhere. They have shown themselves able to attack almost at will with a single-minded determination to influence Pakistan’s elections. The TTP spokesman was even quoted by Pakistan’s Express Tribune as citing European philosophers, when he said elections were contrary to Pakistan’s Islamic values. “The two are contrary to each other because Islamic laws and values come from Allah Almighty, while the secular doctrine comes from Rousseau, Kant and Bentham.”
They are not just angry tribesmen riled up by drones. They have a plan. And Pakistan, no matter how many nameless children among the dead, does not.