SINCE the start of the election campaign on April 11, there has hardly been a day without violence and grief. Proscribed militant groups have unleashed a reign of terror in their attempt to sabotage the polls.
The caretaker governments seem helpless in the face of escalating violence, particularly in Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. Many important persons and heads of key national institutions have spoken about the approaching polls in the last few days. Their words carry weight and could determine the fate of the electoral process on May 11. Among them, the chief election commissioner has linked the holding of free, fair and transparent polls to the maintenance of law and order, and has said that the provision of security is the government’s job.
Over the past three weeks, nearly 50 violent attacks have been reported and this deadly trend is not subsiding. The bombings and armed assaults have claimed almost 80 lives, candidates among them, and have left over 350 injured in what have been described as Pakistan’s “most bloody and challenging elections”.
Except for Punjab, all other parts of the country are facing unprecedented pre-poll violence. In Sindh, Karachi in particular is facing the spectre of a Frankenstein’s monster that is savagely distorting the electoral process. The proscribed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for most incidents. Interior Sindh has also experienced election-related attacks. The terrorists opened their account by killing a Muttahida Qaumi Movement candidate in Hyderabad.
Attacks on election offices, rallies and candidates’ homes have become a daily affair in Balochistan. The violence there began on April 16 with an attack on an election rally of Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, a PML-N leader, in Khuzdar district. The attack killed some of his family members amongst others. The banned Baloch Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army have claimed responsibility for lethal attacks in the province. Thousands of schoolteachers have refused to perform election duty in 11 districts because of threats from outlawed militant groups.
The Balochistan poll situation must also be reviewed in the light of the unabated killing of missing Baloch youth and the dumping of their bodies. Reports suggest that 13 dumped bodies have been found in Karachi over the past month or so. This has caused separatist banned groups to put tremendous pressure on Baloch parties contesting elections to provoke them into abandoning the democratic path.
KP and Fata have also witnessed grave pre-poll violence. As a result of bomb blasts, attacks on election offices and corner meetings, there have been few large-scale rallies there, leading to lacklustre campaigns.
The caretaker prime minister addressed the nation saying that free, fair and peaceful elections will be held on May 11. He is a gentleman but confusion and the lack of a coherent response to the violence is writ large on the face of the caretakers. While the information minister correctly blames “internal and local elements” for major acts of violence, the director general of the interior ministry’s National Crisis Management Cell says that “terrorists who have infiltrated from Afghanistan are involved in attacks on political parties during electioneering”. This confusion does not reflect well on the caretakers.
The army chief has also spoken and his message is reassuring: come what may, the elections will be held on May 11. Amidst doubts created by the violence, the Taliban’s threat to the PPP, MQM and ANP, the Baloch separatists’ actions to sabotage elections in Balochistan and of course conspiracy theories regarding hostile foreign elements, his remarks serve to provide psychological strength to the vast majority of voters to muster the courage to go to the polling stations and cast their votes. The armed forces, have deployed 70,000 troops across the country to perform security duties till the completion of the electoral process. However, keeping order and ensuring that the electoral process is not disrupted will be a very big challenge.
As a policy, the armed forces will not be deployed at the polling stations and will mostly act as a quick response force. Air-borne combat units will also be available to reach trouble spots promptly. Special emphasis is being placed on the deployment of troops in Balochistan, especially in a dozen sensitive districts.
The anticipated escalation in violence as elections approach, the possibility of suicide attacks against the security forces, attention-diverting small-scale incidents of sabotage making room for a large-scale attack, and the element of surprise by the disruptive forces will require a flexible deployment strategy.
This may entail the armed units to secure and safeguard quite a few polling stations and staff conducting elections. Therefore, all options should be open, with large contingents of mobile patrolling forces protecting the routes to polling stations. This is a huge challenge but the military is trained to adapt to fast-changing scenarios of violence.
In the very limited time available before polling day, we require clarity and urgency by the key stakeholders responsible for the conduct of elections. The Election Commission of Pakistan is the leader here. Its chief should consider holding an urgent meeting of the heads of contesting parties where all the participants should unequivocally condemn the violence unleashed by terrorists. This is important to provide a level playing field to parties facing a direct threat.
The security establishment, including the intelligence agencies and military, has to shoulder the major responsibility as the state should not be perceived as weak in its hour of trial. Public hopes have been raised by the army chief’s commitment to sparing no effort to assist in holding fair and transparent polls. In order to boost the confidence of Baloch nationalist parties, the killing and dumping of missing Baloch youth should be curbed. This is a do-or-die moment for Baloch nationalists opting for democracy. The state should not abandon them. Hopefully, the chief election commissioner and caretaker prime minister and the entire state machinery at their disposal will not disappoint the nation.
The writer is a retired police officer.