My piece on the elections for The News
Holding a peaceful election in 2013 would, perhaps, be one of the important milestones in countering the power and influence of the extremists
Within two months, nearly 90 million Pakistanis will vote to elect new federal and provincial governments. This democratic transition has been hailed as a major victory of Pakistan’s fledgling democracy beset by regional instability and a worsening domestic security climate.
During the first quarter of 2013, 35 of sectarian attacks have taken place in Karachi and Quetta. In the same period, at least 144 suicide bombings and attacks on state installations have taken place in various parts of the country. Given this unfortunate situation, there is a widespread fear that the forthcoming elections may entail unprecedented violence and god forbid high profile assassinations.
However, ‘violence’ needs to be unpacked and examined in the context of Pakistani politics. There are three strands of violence which are independently and sometimes jointly working to create a semi-anarchic situation where citizens and political parties are insecure, the state seems to be on the retreat and the militant groups appear to be in the ascendant.
First, we are gripped by the larger, unholy alliance between al-Qaeda, the Taliban, especially the Pakistani factions, and the sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), bolstered by other banned terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) etc. Details of these groups and the specific nature of their activities are all too well known and recorded by both Pakistani and foreign analysts. There is a strange paradox at work here. The state is under attack by these groups and at the same time, it is trying to explore the options of negotiating with these groups for some kind of a truce. The backdrop, of course, is the post-Nato situation in Afghanistan where Pakistan is keen to book a seat on the Afghan power table.
This strand of violence is affecting much of Fata (at least four agencies are battlegrounds between the Pakistan army and the militants), and Khyber Paktunkhawa province. The TTP has issued most brazen statements such as the one which urges people to stay away from the public rallies of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP). The space for these relatively progressive and moderate parties is, therefore, shrinking with each passing day.
For instance, the ANP is likely to hold no rallies and only go for door-to-door campaigning. Its leadership has been advised by the party not to be physically present during the electoral campaign. The PPP chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is not in the country, and while speculation on his departure has been reported in the press, however, the actual situation is not being deliberated which relates to the simple fact that Bilawal Bhutto is not secure in Pakistan given the fact that his mother Benazir Bhutto was killed five years ago after an election rally in Rawalpindi.
The other dimension of this battle is how the terror network has extended beyond Fata and has turned Karachi into its new conflict zone. Ironically, Karachi, not unlike Fata, suffers from an underdeveloped state syndrome where state building, for a host of complex political and historical reasons, could not take place since the 1950s.
Declan Walsh and Zia-ur-Rehman, in their recent report for the New York Times (March 28, 2013), state: “The grab for influence and power in Karachi show that the Taliban have been able to extend their reach across Pakistan, even here in the country’s most populous city…no longer can they be written off as endemic to the country’s frontier regions.”
Multiple reasons have been cited to explain this phenomenon. It is commonly understood that many militants are fleeing from the north west of the country and finding refuge in the burgeoning Pakhtun enclaves in the metropolis. However, the strategic location of Karachi as Pakistan’s largest port, and the venue for Nato supplies and exit next year, could be another reason for the al-Qaeda led network to gain more control.
This alarming development has also led to an unspoken truce between the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the ANP in the city, with the latter shutting down dozens of its offices across the city. The more worrying signs are how the thin police force has been put on a defensive, the social development campaigns (such as polio vaccinations) are endangered and more significantly, parallel judicial systems are emerging in the metropolis where the Taliban demonstrate their proclivity for quick dispute resolution termed as ‘justice’.
Unfortunately, the political parties through their short sighted policy of patronizing criminal gangs have created an arena where the Taliban are finding it quite convenient to make alliances with the well-established gangs and both groups are resorting to extortion, reflecting perhaps the desperate attempt to make up for reduced funds inflow from the middle east.
The third major challenge in terms of security relate to Balochistan where the Baloch separatist movement continues. The state, particularly the security establishment, is not keen to change its policy, and scores of missing Baloch activists dogs the chances of any meaningful dialogue between the state and the separatists. The return of Akhtar Mengal, head of Baloch National Party, is a positive sign but he is also facing many threats and in the insurgency hit districts, especially in the south of Balochistan, elections are likely to be violent.
Media reports have already suggested that the intelligence agencies are warning the executive about the warring security scenarios. The Interior Ministry, in its assessment, has warned of a massive terrorist threat in the coming elections (Dawn, March 28, 2013).
Among other news, the Interior Ministry has noted that the TTP is likely to carry out attacks in south Punjab, particularly Khanewal and Multan. It would be pertinent to note that South Punjab has been the breeding ground for terrorist networks and also a recruitment ground for the TTP warriors across the country. Sadly, the outgoing government of the PML-N, due to its expedient policy, turned a blind eye to this threat.
While the caretaker prime minister and the chief ministers have been appointed, their cabinets are still to be announced. At the time of writing these lines, there is no Federal Interior Minister, and even if we have all the ministers and bureaucrats in place, without the active participation of the military establishment, especially the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the military intelligence, countering this threat may not be that easy.
It would be unrealistic and unlawful to expect a short term caretaker administration to either reset national security or counter terror policies. However, given that a caretaker administration is free of the day-to-day political compulsions of keeping coalitions intact, it is expected that they would keep the law and order as topmost priority.
The recent statements of the Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Najam Sethi are encouraging. But statements alone will not solve the situation. A concentrated, joint intelligence operation needs to take place and the flashpoints in the country require extraordinary vigilance and swift action. Holding a peaceful election in 2013 would perhaps be one of the important milestones in countering the power and influence of the extremists who in the first place do not believe in constitutional democracy.
The Election Commission is chairing the electoral process, but it cannot achieve the objectives of holding a free and fair election on its own. The political parties have to display greater responsibility and ownership of this agenda, and they also need to adhere to the code of conduct which has the potential to minimize political violence before and during the polls. Most importantly, the parties need to beef up their internal security protocols at corner meetings, rallies and other campaign related activities. After all, they are the key stakeholders in the democratic process.