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Pakistan Election May Be Most Violent Ever
Militants seek to thwart spirit of elections through intimidation, violence
Ghulam Hussain (hussain)     Print Article 
Published 2008-02-11 09:06 (KST)   
This article is only lightly edited.  <Editor's Note>
Despite the doubts being expressed by some quarters about the fate of the delayed general election, the interim Pakistani regime seems determined to hold the election on Feb. 18, but it may see much more violence this time around as compared to the previous election.

Although the violence in recent months has 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.

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Two candidates have so far been killed in the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

A few deaths have also been reported from Sindh, the home province of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in Rawalpindi on Dec. 27, moments after addressing an election rally. Various people were also killed in different parts of the country in riots that followed Bhutto's assassination.

Armed motorcyclists gunned down the vice president of the Awami National Party's Sindh chapter, Fazalur Rehman Akakhail, on Feb. 6 in Karachi, 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 labeled as an ethnic group, of killing Akakhail 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 the NWFP chapter of ANP, while addressing a press conference on Feb. 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 Ishratul Ebad Khan, alleging that he was masterminding all the violence in Karachi.

A few months before the announcement of the election schedule, 24 ANP activists were gunned down on May 12, 2007, in Karachi as deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry was due to arrive there. "The perpetrators behind the tragic incident [of May 12] are still at large," Khattak said.

Unfortunately, when Khattak was addressing the press conference in Peshawar, a bomb ripped through his party's election rally in the Shabqadar area of Charsadda district, killing at least 27 people and injuring scores of others. Reacting to the incident, ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan said the bombing was aimed at crafting a pretext to put off the election.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a civil society organization, called on Feb. 10 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 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 being the hometown of other political bigwigs, including former Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who is eyeing the office of the prime minister after Feb. 18 election, former Federal Minister Ahmed Mukhtar and former MP Qamar-uz-Zaman Kaira of the Pakistan People's Party. Four National Assembly and eight Punjab Assembly constituencies fell in the district dominated by a few clans, with one being that of the PML chief.

During its visit to the district, the CMD mission noted with concern a massive display of arms and the 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.

While talking to the CMD mission, District Returning Officer Chaudhry Ghulam Rasool rejected allegations that are commonly leveled 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 having the support of the district government.

District Mayor Chaudhry Shafaat Hussain, who is the younger brother of PML President Shujaat Hussain, refuted all the allegations, claiming that the district government was following the instructions of the ECP and that 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, 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 organizations), 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 the fragile security situation in those districts, many people were apprehensive about going to the polls on Feb. 18 because of the fear of violence. 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 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 chalking on walls.

The local and provincial governments were providing security to political parties and candidates in all the districts, except for Charsadda, where reportedly only the PPP's Sherpao was being provided security. However, political parties and candidates in Peshawar, Mardan, Haripur and Malakand prefer to hire private security guards than rely 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 the 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 to be un-Islamic, ordained their officials to be killed and 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 stealing their vehicles.

Keeping these circumstances in view, it is widely believed that the Feb. 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.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ghulam Hussain

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