Uneven playing field: Election violence

Published May 4, 2013
Pakistani media and security officials gather outside the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party office after a bomb explosion in Karachi on May 2, 2013.
Pakistani media and security officials gather outside the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party office after a bomb explosion in Karachi on May 2, 2013.

THE concerns of the Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim that free and fair elections are not possible without proper security arrangements were further justified with the killing of a National Assembly candidate in Karachi yesterday. There will now be no elections on May 11 to the seat he was contesting. On Tuesday, a provincial assembly candidate in the Jhal Magsi area was killed — polling in his constituency too has been suspended. Meanwhile, on Thursday, two polling stations in Balochistan’s Nasirabad district were blown up while an MQM election office in Karachi was bombed. The militants’ campaign of violence is in full swing.

There have been over 40 election-related acts of violence since April 11. Over 70 people have died in these while more than 350 have been injured. Parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata, and Balochistan, along with Karachi, are the worst affected while thousands of polling stations countrywide have been declared ‘sensitive’. All this violence has proved that there is anything but a level playing field especially for those parties that have been singled out by the militants for their ‘secular’ leanings. However, the parties that have been spared by the extremists, including the PML-N and PTI as well as the religious parties, have either been lukewarm in their criticism, ‘appealing’ to the militants to hold their fire, or have maintained a deafening silence. Quite naturally, there are many concerns about how the ongoing mayhem will affect voter turnout. With such frequent shootings and bombings, the public cannot be faulted for being wary about stepping out on election day, especially in areas that have witnessed the most violence.

This is where the role of the state and the Election Commission of Pakistan comes in. The deployment of 70,000 troops for election security has begun and hopefully this will reassure jittery voters that matters are under control. Yet public confidence will only rise when there is a noticeable decrease in the acts of violence in the days leading up to May 11. The state needs to project that troops are on the ground for the safety of candidates, political workers, polling staff and the voters while the ECP needs to launch a major media campaign reassuring voters that it is safe to come out and cast their ballot. It is essential to convince the voters and ensure a sizable turnout for two main reasons — to defeat the extremists’ campaign and to grant legitimacy to the continuity of the democratic project in Pakistan.

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