Party workers at the ANP district election office in Mardan.—Photo by writer
Party workers at the ANP district election office in Mardan.—Photo by writer

The red in the Awami National Party’s flag is for blood. You wouldn’t have known that on the morning of the July 7, even if you had known the history of brutal attacks on the party that have left a long trail of blood.

That Saturday, the red flags on buildings looked dazzling against blue skies over Mardan, an ANP stronghold. If Wali Khan, the ANP leader who famously said don’t trust statements of support unless a flag is raised atop a person’s house or carriage, is to be believed, parts of Mardan were awash in red, the people making a personal statement.

Far from blood, it was the colour of optimism that day. Asked if security was a concern like in the 2013 elections when the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan had singled out the ANP and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement for attacks, an ANP worker said: “You know you are winning when you have laid out seats for 200 [at an election gathering] and 1,500 supporters turn up to attend. We have security fears but that hasn’t stopped us from holding public meetings.”

As buoyant party workers primed themselves for a probable victory in elections, someone somewhere was planning the suicide attack that killed the ANP leader Haroon Bilour on July 10. The attack also snuffed the ANP election campaign. And with it, say party leaders, the hope for free and fair elections. “Free and fair elections are all about a level playing field allowed to contestants across the board,” says ANP spokesperson Zahid Khan. “It’s clearly not the case, more so with the attacks. The ECP is either not independent or not asserting itself to ensure security. The judiciary that takes suo moto action on everything else is looking away from election violence. When the whole campaign is geared to bring one party to power at any cost, what choice do people have but to vote for it.”

It is a big question for the ECP, the interim government and the security establishment that parties are getting targeted.

Zahid Khan

Campaign carnage

The prospect of non-state actors staking claim to shape the electoral exercise in keeping with their wishes through violence congealed into real fear when another bombing targeted the Jamiat Ulema-i Islam-Fazl campaign on July 13, its candidate Akram Khan Durrani surviving the attack in Bannu. The same day, a bombing in Mastung, Balochistan, killed more than 145 people, including the Balochistan Awami Party candidate Nawabzada Siraj Raisani. Whoever chose Friday the 13 for the carnage in Balochistan and KP certainly had a penchant for horror — the Hollywood kind.

“For a month, we had excellent momentum with campaigning and then suddenly these attacks,” says JUI-F’s KP information secretary Abdul Jalil Jan. “We don’t know whether they happened to rig or to postpone elections. What we do know is that the political parties have to unite to face the threat to the country and democracy.”

Evoking threats that singled out certain parties like the ANP and MQM for attacks in the run-up to 2013 elections, a TTP letter soon after the attack on Haroon Bilour asked people to stay away from the “campaign gatherings and corner meetings of ANP because we (the TTP) has declared war on the party” and the “onus of loss would rest with the people” should they not heed the warning.

Suddenly, it felt like the 2013 elections on repeat, only bloodier.

The state and the non-state

Beyond campaigning, election violence raises the spectre of low voter turnout and whether an election with low participation from the electorate is truly representative of the people’s will. Despite widespread concerns about security during elections, democracy groups choose to stay optimistic. They celebrate reforms like the Elections Act 2017 that, among other things, makes women participation in elections mandatory.

Others take a less hopeful view, suggesting that electoral reforms amount to little if people are not free to vote, and the state’s history of undermining democracy has shaped an environment where non-state actors feel free to do the same. To realise the people’s right to representation, they say, people need to have rights to association and information to make informed choices about voting, and an environment to vote free of fear.

In Pakistan, says Peshawar-based political analyst Khadim Hussain, the people’s right to representation is weakened by narratives of disreputable character, treason and corruption when it comes to politics and politicians. The reality, he says, is that from 1985 onwards, the state created “patronage circles” co-opting the common people by making narrow selfish motives such as roads and electricity transformers central to the electoral exercise while divesting people of the free will to associate with and stand up for an ideology.

Come elections and the state institutions create a narrative through steady release of propaganda and holding back valid information, says Hussain, creating a buzz that a certain party or individual will come to power. “In post-poll rigging, they bring in a hung parliament to create alliances of their choice,” he says. “It is too weak to take policy decisions like budget allocation and people who vote end up believing that democracy doesn’t work. This has been the cycle since the 70s to debase democracy and politics in the eyes of citizens.”

Free and fair elections?

With banned militant organisations making their motives abundantly clear and bent on using violence to achieve them, political parties and workers believe the 2018 elections would be anything but free and fair. Perhaps, elections would take place, they say, but the turn-out will be low and results far from representative.

“To vote is to make Pakistan stable,” says JUI’s Jalil Jan. “To not vote is to make it unstable. We will take care but we will not abandon campaigning. That is the only way to defeat forces bent on subverting and postponing the election to destabilise Pakistan.”

Democracy groups working on electoral reforms under UNDP and EU initiatives say they have to work within the “social and political context”.

“In KP, security is a big concern,” says a representative of democracy group. “Both Bilour and Durrani come from the opposite ends of a socio-political spectrum — one is from a liberal secular party, another religious democrat. This shows the threat is not specific but aimed at all. If there is low turnout and voters are targeted, then results may not be credible as had happened in Afghanistan.”

For the ANP that has long lived in the shadow of death, being singled out for deadly violence means an existential threat to life and limb but also to political survival. Of the 1,500 elders killed in Fata since 2002, when militants first surfaced in the region, 300 of them were ANP workers, as per the party’s count of the dead. The first to fall was Mirza Alam in 2003, a party worker from Wana. Over the years, the party lost 850 more in KP and the Pashtun-belt of Balochistan. Among them was Bakht Baidar, ANP’s senior vice president in Swat. Others like Bashir Bilour, a member of the KP Assembly, killed in a suicide attack in December 2012, and his son Haroon Bilour, killed in a suicide attack on July 10 while campaigning for the upcoming elections, are among the better-known dead the ANP has lately buried.

“In 2013 we suffered badly due to threats and the beginning of 2018 campaign doesn’t auger well either,” says Zahid Khan. “It is a big question for the ECP, the interim government and the security establishment that parties are getting targeted. Our [popularity] graph was up and suddenly someone pressed the breaks on us. You just have to look at the number of mourners at Haroon’s funeral to see that far from afraid, our workers are determined.”

Published in Dawn, July 18th, 2018