Feb 18 election in Pakistan may be the most violent ever
Despite doubts being expressed by some quarters about fate of the delayed general election, the interim Pakistani regime seems determined to hold election on February 18 but the exercise may see much more violence this time around as compared to the previous elections.
Though all of the violence in recent months had no direct link to the election, dozens of people have already been killed in various incidents of firing and bombings across the country since announcement of the election schedule.
Two candidates have so far been killed in the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP) -- one of them was killed in a bombing while the other being shot dead.
A few deaths have also been reported from Sindh, the home province of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who herself fell victim to a suicide bombing in Rawalpindi on December 27, 2007 moments after addressing an election rally.
Besides economic losses, various people were also killed in different parts of the country in riots that followed assassination of Bhutto, who was leading election campaign of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Armed motorcyclists gunned down Vice President of the Awami National Party’s Sindh chapter Fazalur Rehman Akakhail in Karachi on February 6, triggering violence in some areas of the commercial capital of Pakistan and at least two more deaths.
The Awami National Party (ANP) accused the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a Karachi-based political party often labelled as an ethnic group, of killing Akakhel in a bid to sabotage the election.
“The MQM does not want to open the port city for other political forces. That’s why they don’t let any political party to strengthen their roots in Karachi,” alleged Afrasiyab Khattak, president of NWFP chapter of ANP, while addressing a press conference on February 9.
Khattak, a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, urged the MQM to put a leash on its “gangsters”. He warned that lethargy in this regard might lead the mega city of the country to a civil war. He also demanded an immediate removal of Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ebad Khan, alleging that he was masterminding all the violence in Karachi.Although a few months before announcement of election schedule, 24 ANP activists were gunned down in Karachi on May 12, 2007 when deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was due to reach there. “The perpetrators behind the tragic incident [of May 12] are still at large,” Khattak said. <?xml:namespace prefix = o />
Unfortunately, when Khattak was addressing the press conference in Peshawar, a bomb ripped through his party’s election rally in Shabqadar area of Charsadda district, keeping at least 27 persons and injuring scores others.
Reacting to the incident, ANP Chief Asfandyar Wali Khan said the bombing was aimed at crafting a pretext to putt off the election.
The Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD), a civil society organisation, on February 10 called for urgent attention and foolproof security measures by the relevant authorities to ensure the holding of free, fair and transparent elections in a safe environment in Gujrat, the home district of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of the erstwhile ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML).
Expressing grave concern over the volatile law and order situation in Gujrat, a CMD fact-finding mission termed it “highly unpredictable”.
Gujrat has a specific significance in the political landscape of Pakistan for also being hometown of some other political bigwigs like former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who is eyeing office of the prime minister after February 18 election, former federal minister Ahmed Mukhtar, former MP of PPP Qamar-uz-Zaman Kaira, etc. Four National Assembly and eight Punjab Assembly constituencies fall in the district dominated by a few clans with one being that of PML chief.
During its visit to the district, the CMD mission noted with concern a massive display of arms and use of heavy financial resources by almost all the candidates taking part in the polls.
"As far as the code of conduct of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is concerned, this doesn’t seem applicable in the district. Huge billboards, hoardings, banners and posters in violation to the ECP code of conduct can be seen everywhere in the district carrying the images of all leading contestants from mainstream political parties. Almost all the candidates are trading allegations and pointing fingers towards each other for violation of the code but nobody is serious to abide by the code itself,” the CMD mission noted.
The CMD mission found the candidates from all major political parties violating the ECP code of conduct. It noted that they usually move with wagons carrying armed personnel and most of the guards carry lethal weapons.
“It seems that the ECP is too constrained to control the violation of laws as the politicians as well as the people are not new to this culture,” the mission said in its report.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />While talking to the CMD mission, District Returning Officer Chaudhry Ghulam Rasool rejected allegations that are commonly levelled by the candidates from all political parties and said that everything was smooth and there was no pressure on his office.He claimed that the ECP had introduced inclusive electoral procedures and almost all the complaints forwarded by the ECP were redressed accordingly. He said the PPP had sent five complaints and all were looked into and appropriate actions were taken. However, contrary to his claim the PPP candidates expressed their concern that the election in the district would not be free and fair.Ahmad Mukhtar and Qamar-uz-Zaman Kaira alleged that the Chaudhry family would go to any extent to win all the seats from the district. They accused the PML candidates of using state resources and support of the district government.
District Mayor Chaudhry Shafaat Hussain, who is younger brother of PML President Shujaat Hussain, refuted all the allegations and claiming that the district government was following the instructions of the ECP and he was utterly neutral in its conduct. “I am not using official machinery to support my family but in my personal capacity I am supporting them and this is my right,” he said.Malik Jamil Awan, a candidate of PML-N led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif candidate from NA-107, also said the ECP code of conduct was not effective in the entire district. The CMD mission that visited Gujrat district included Justice (Retired) Javaid Nawaz Gandapur, eminent journalist Mohammed Ashraf Malkham, educationist Samia Mubashir, Ali Tariq of Fazaldad Human Rights Institute and high court lawyer Uzma Chattha.
According to a report of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), a network of civil society organisation, political parties, contesting candidates and voters have voiced their concern over the security situation in NWFP and parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata).
Based on information sent by its coordinators from Peshawar, Nowshera, Bannu, Mardan, Swabi, Kohat, Karak, Haripur, Dera Ismail Khan, Buner, Swat, Shangla, Chitral, Dir Lower, Malakand, Lakki Marwat, Charsadda, Hangu and Battagram districts of NWFP and Fata, the network said that many potential voters in the observed districts were taking interest in the general election and hoped they would take place on schedule.However, due to the uncertain political climate of the country and fragile security situation in those districts, many people were apprehensive about going to the polls on February 18 because of the fear of violence, including militant attacks on polling stations. Many also had concerns that the election might not be held at all.
Fafen observers reported that people feared violent attacks or suicide bombings, especially in Peshawar, Swat, Orakzai Agency and Charsadda. In all the districts, people perceive local militant groups as the main threat to peace on the polling day.
The Fafen report said that because of the security threat in most of the districts political parties and candidates were campaigning cautiously by going door-to-door, holding corner meetings, small rallies, erecting posters and banners and wall chalking.
The local and provincial governments were providing security to political parties and candidates in all the districts, except for Charsadda, where reportedly only PPP-Sherpao was being provided security. However, political parties and candidates in Peshawar, Mardan, Haripur and Malakand prefer to hire private security guards than relying on the state-provided security.
The Fafen report said that local militant groups or individuals had not expressed political ambitions in any of the observed districts except for Mohmand Agency, where they had reportedly been supporting an influential independent candidate.In Swat, Malakand, Mohmand Agency, parts of Peshawar and Shangla, the Fafen report said, the local militant groups are threatening political parties, candidates and general public not to participate in the elections.
The Fafen observers reported that militants had been openly threatening NGO workers in Swat, Malakand, Orakzai Agency, Lakki Marwat, Charsadda and Hangu. The local Taliban or other militants have declared NGOs as un-Islamic and their officials ordained to be killed and have initiated a campaign to prevent them from functioning.
To discourage NGOs from operating in those areas, militants use coercive methods like abducting NGO workers, their family members or lifting their vehicles.Keeping in view these circumstances, it is widely believed that the February 18 election might prove to be the bloodiest in the history of Pakistan notwithstanding the fears being expressed by some quarters about the situation in the aftermath of the election.