A traditional feudal society, weak democratic norms, insufficiently robust modern institutions and continuous power struggles between presidents, prime ministers and army chiefs caused the country to suffer military takeovers four times, in 1958, 1969, 1977 and 1999.
These coups produced regimes that ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 60 years of existence as an independent state. This fragile past has contributed to citizens’ lack of faith in a free and fair electoral process, causing voter turnout to average only 45 percent since general elections in 1947 and producing an electoral commission that lacks the independence or authority to withstand pressure from, and manipulation by, an overbearing executive.
On May 11, 2013, Pakistanis voted in an election that marked the country’s first ever peaceful transition of power from one democratic government to the next, following the previous government’s unprecedented completion of its full five-year term. Pakistani voters displayed courage in coming out to vote in record numbers despite the real threat of militant attack. But the Pakistani Taliban appears to have had a tangible impact on the election’s outcome, particularly through its use of pre-poll violence.
The three-week campaign period leading up to polls on May 11 was the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history. According to a Pakistani government report, 81 people were killed and 437 people were wounded in over 119 violent incidents between April 20, when campaigning officially began, and May 9, when a campaign blackout was instituted. Violence continued through the end of the campaign season: on May 9, the son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was kidnapped by suspected Taliban militants; on May 10, militants killed three people and wounded 15 when they bombed political offices in North Waziristan agency in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and wounded five more in Quetta, Balochistan province in a grenade attack.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was responsible for the majority of the violence. The TTP is the main Taliban umbrella group in Pakistan and is the principal enemy of the Pakistani state. Its objective is the overthrow of the Pakistani state and its replacement with an Islamic emirate governed by its conception of Sharia law. The group sees democracy as anathema to Islam and has carried out attacks aimed at derailing Pakistan’s democratic elections. It is also openly supportive of al Qaeda.
The group has been far from impartial in its attacks, however. The TTP focused its pre-poll violence primarily on three political parties: the formerly-ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Awami National Party (ANP). All three are considered to be “secular” parties, and were coalition partners in the previous government. The TTP not only sees them as embodiments of a heretical system of government, but also holds them responsible for numerous military operations conducted against the Taliban across northwest Pakistan over the government’s past, five-year term.
The ANP, a Pashtun nationalist party strongest in northwest Pakistan that operates in closest proximity to the TTP’s safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Pashtun neighborhoods in the southern city of Karachi, bore a particularly heavy share of the violence. Over half the people killed in the campaign’s 20-day period were ANP supporters or functionaries. Dozens more have died in bombings and targeted attacks in the months running up to the polls. A Taliban suicide bomber assassinated a top leader of the ANP, Bashir Ahmed Bilour, on December 22, 2012 at a campaign rally outside Bilour’s house. The party’s leadership maintained a covert profile after that attack; the party’s leader barely campaigned at all, spending much of his time in Islamabad, hundreds of miles from his constituency, trying to conduct his campaign by phone. In Karachi, Pakistan’s southern metropolis, the ANP’s traditionally strong presence among the city’s significant Pashtun minority has been systematically undercut by the TTP. The TTP has launched attacks on poll workers and election offices, removed party posters and flags and forced the ANP to retreat from Pashtun neighborhoods across the city. Where the ANP has campaigned, it has tended to maintain a low profile and limit itself to small corner gatherings or house-to-house visits.
The case has been similar with the MQM, the traditionally dominant party in Karachi. Party workers, election offices and campaign rallies have been attacked by the TTP. Whereas the MQM is normally used to having the run of the city, it severely curtailed its campaign activities prior to May 11. The PPP has also come under Taliban attack in northwest Pakistan and Karachi. The party’s chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, fled to Dubai before the polls and refused to appear at the head of campaign rallies except by video link out of fear for his security. PPP stalwarts privately admit that Bilawal’s absence has had a deeply negative impact on morale and campaign activities, and PPP supporters’ desires to see known party leaders show up at rallies have largely gone unfulfilled.
By contrast, the Taliban appears to have specifically avoided targeting certain parties. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were both spared the violence visited upon their main rivals and were able to campaign relatively openly around the country. Both parties are seen as more “right-wing” and “conservative” than the PPP, ANP or MQM; they have called for peace talks with the Taliban, and said they will bring an end to Pakistan’s participation in what they call America’s war on terror. Neither party dares deviate from its soft stance on the Taliban for fear of inviting militant attack. The PML-N, for its part, has also maintained disconcerting alliances with radical right-wing political groups in Pakistan that are widely believed to be fronts for terrorist groups. The PML-N’s closeness to Ahle-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, the new incarnation of sectarian terrorist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), is one such example. In fact, one person who campaigned and won a seat in parliament on a PML-N ticket in Punjab province is a convicted murderer with known ties to the terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The PML-N was not spared violence entirely. It came under attack on a number of occasions in Balochistan province where there is an ongoing irredentist movement seeking independence from what it sees as a Punjab-dominated Pakistan. The PML-N has traditionally been a Punjab-centric party and, as a result, is a popular target for Baloch separatists. Baloch rebels also singled out what they view as treasonous Baloch nationalist parties that have chosen to take part in elections. It is not clear if this violence was locally-spawned or conducted at the behest of the TTP.
Violence on Election Day
The level of violence on May 11, however, stood in stark contrast to that the TTP had executed in the run-up to polling. While The TTP was able to conduct a number of successful attacks on May 11, the number, lethality and overall impact of attacks were lower than people had come to expect.
A TTP bomb attack on an ANP election office in Quaidabad, Karachi killed 11 people and wounded 35 others—the deadliest single attack on election day. Another smaller bomb attack on a bus carrying ANP workers killed one person. In the Manghopir area of Karachi, two Rangers personnel were killed and five people injured in a suicide bomb attack. In the Killi Shabo area of Quetta, Balochistan, one person was killed and eight were injured in a grenade attack by unknown individuals. Also in Balochistan, two people were killed in firing by unknown individuals on a polling station in Kalat, and one person died and seven were wounded in a landmine blast. In Kuchlak, a grenade attack on an ANP office injured five. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, arguably the part of the country most at risk, one person was killed and nine injured in two separate bomb blasts in Sheikh Muhammad and Larama on the outskirts of Peshawar. Five people were wounded in an explosion near a school in Takkar. Two people were also killed and six were wounded in an improvised explosive device attack on a police van in Mashokhel. Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa reported defusing four bombs, two in Mardan, one in Hangu and one in Bannu.
Despite the violence, however, Pakistan witnessed a record 60 percent voter turnout. Voters appeared not to be cowed by the threat or occurrence of election violence. In Karachi, the worst-hit city, voters appeared in droves at polling stations across the city well into the evening.
Understanding Electoral Violence in Asia, UNDP, 2011