Saturday, 11 May 2013

Elections 2013 and threats to the liberal political parties

by Syed Fida Hassan Shah 

For the very first time in our history, Pakistan is going to complete a peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another. This is no less than an achievement for a country that is notorious for military coup and unceremonious dismissal of political governments. But this peaceful transition is turning into a bloody one, especially for the parties who were partners in a coalition government from 2008-2013. Candidates belonging to the secular and nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), mainstream Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP) and The Mutahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) have been attacked by the militants, killing many innocent people and threatening the election campaigns of these parties.
The militants have openly warned common people not to attend meetings and rallies held by these political parties. There have been numerous bomb attacks on candidates belonging to these political parties and their election offices. Senior ANP leader, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, survived suicide attack during a corner meeting in Peshawar. 17 people, including police officers, were killed and more than 40 injured in the attack. Many other leaders and workers, belonging to ANP, have been attacked in other parts of the province.

The leadership of these political parties has issued directions to its candidates for their individual election campaign, asking them to limit their campaign to a bare minimum level during the electioneering. They have further directed their party candidates to restrict their election campaign to corner meetings and hired security guards for personal protection. Leaders and candidates of political parties have also started taking precautionary measures, like holding unannounced corner meetings and keeping their schedules secret for personal security. Similarly, candidates and supporters of MQM have also been attacked in the Southern port city of Karachi, killing and injuring many of them including one of its candidates for a provincial assembly seat from Hyderabad. The ANP rally in Karachi was also attacked , which killed and injured many innocent people. One independent candidate, who earlier remained associated with ANP, was also attacked in Bannu. He later on got a reprieve from the militants after he publicly denied any link with the nationalist party.

Furthermore, attacks on these liberal parties will surely help the right wing parties, that are ideologically aligned with the militants, to gain grounds in the forthcoming elections. The leaders of such political parties appear really happy, which is evident from the fact that very few of them have so far openly condemned these attacks by the militant groups. The leaders of these parties are running their election campaigns by holding large public meetings and taking out huge rallies openly, without any fear of attacks by any militant group. They are surely going to benefit from this scenario as the leaders of the liberal parties have almost been forcefully cut off from their supporters. Apparently, there is a concerted effort to keep the liberals out of the election campaign. This is a sorry state of affairs wherein religious hardliners are going to take over Pakistan. Many leaders and workers of these liberal and secular parties have switched to the right wing religious parties ostensibly because of security reasons. This has been called pre-poll rigging by the militants as well. Although  Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and a few other individual groups have voiced their concerns, the national political leadership and otherwise vibrant and active civil society and right groups have just kept mum on this issue

The liberal forces are thus considering this as a plot against them in the sense that people have been asked to stay away from liberal forces and don’t vote for them. The environment created by unknown forces and terrorists are taking Pakistan away from the democratic process, especially by pushing liberal forces to the wall and by killing off their candidates and workers, as well as bombing their political gatherings. Thus, the options available to these progressive parties are very limited. They have certainly not been provided the level of playing field, and are in turn fighting against heavy odds in the forthcoming elections. But they should never leave field totally open for the opposing forces. The decision of the ANP leadership to fight the elections till its last voter is really a commendable one.

However, boycotting of the election process should never be an option for the political forces for, historically, whenever political parties boycotted the election process, preferred groups and individuals with dubious credentials have taken over to fill the vacuum. These parties need to come up with innovative methods to run their election campaign and to further stay in touch with their voters and supporters. They can use the ever-growing social media and mobile SMS to reach out to their supporters. These liberal parties also need to make an alliance to face the common and mighty enemy. International observers and media should monitor the pre-election situation in Pakistan and highlight the threats which the liberal forces are facing during their election campaign. The caretaker government and the election commission should hence wake up before the situation becomes so horrific that there may not be an election to ensure a historic democratic transition.
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