On April 16, a suicide attack in Peshawar at a political rally for the ANP killed at least 17 people and injured more than 50. The TTP quickly claimed responsibility. Sadly, this was not an isolated incident. There have been dozens of attacks on political parties and their candidates in the weeks leading up to May 11 elections. And this threatens to affect the outcome of the vote.
For the Pakistani Taliban, these elections have become a threat to its radical agenda. The Taliban turned against the MQM last year when the political party announced plans to hold a public referendum throughout the country urging people to vote on whether they want a Pakistan run by the Taliban, or the one envisioned by Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who wanted Pakistan to be democratic and progressive.
The ANP has lost over 700 of its activists, leaders and supporters to extremist attacks. In December, the Taliban killed Bashir Ahmad Bilour, the ANP leader and the second most senior member of the former provincial cabinet.
And last month, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Chairman of the PPP, suddenly left the country for Dubai due to threats to his life. Bilawal's mother, the former PM Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated by the Taliban in December 2007 at a pre-poll rally in Rawalpindi.
The Taliban's terror campaign this time against leftist parties may actually sway the outcome of the polls. By singling out liberal parties and targeting their candidates, the TTP is actually benefiting the religious and rightwing political parties, especially if it scares away the secular vote.
Secular parties have found no safe and secure environment to launch their election campaigns; threats to public safety have forced a scale-down of meetings and rallies.
Leftist parties, on the other hand, have resorted to door-to-door contacts for political mobilisation, and turned to social and electronic media for electioneering. Rightwing parties, meanwhile, have successfully held larger political gatherings as a part of their election campaign under tight security cover. For some reason, the Taliban and other militants have left them alone. This does not sound like fair play. All the claims made by the caretaker government to hold free, fair and transparent elections carry no weight when leftist political parties do not enjoy the freedom to hold large public meetings and rallies for security concerns.
Last year, rightwing party leaders warned parliamentarians against tabling a resolution in Parliament to launch a military offensive in North Waziristan, which is currently serving as sanctuary for Taliban and other extremists groups along the border with Afghanistan. Some political observers suggest leftist forces are being eliminated in favour of rightist extremists ahead of the election.
The Taliban's selective targeting won't last, however. Soon enough all political parties will be on the hit-list. That's because Pakistan's political parties, corrupt and nepotistic as they may be, still strive for change through ballots. Thus, all of Pakistan's civilian democratic forces must be committed to defeating militants by both political and military means.
On the first front, mainstream parties like the ANP, MQM and PPP, theoretically have the tools to challenge the Taliban. Federal law now allows, for the first time, national parties to field candidates from tribal regions in the country's autonomous northwest. Of course, those that do still find it difficult to operate freely due to militancy and security concerns. So for now, the most pressing challenge is securing poll areas in places where likely voters are expected to turn out. Also, there is also no effective safety mechanism against suicide bomb attacks; it is past time to improve and modernise the intelligence-network to pre-empt such strikes.
Politics in Pakistan are messy. But they don't have to be deadly. The federal government owes it to all Pakistanis to ensure that when voters cast ballots later this month, the Taliban doesn't get the final word.
The writer is a development analyst.
This article has been reproduced from The National.