Elections and the threat of violence

Spearhead Analysis – 02.08.2018

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

On July 10,2018, a bomb blast claimed the lives of twenty people, among them senior Awami National Party (ANP) leader Haroon Bilour. While investigations are still on going, it seems that the suicide bomber behind this reprehensible attack meant to target Bilour specifically, as he waited till he had the imminent lawyer in his sights before setting off his explosive. The incident took place at the site of an ANP meeting, where supporters had gathered in large numbers to discuss strategies for the 2018 general elections, and while many would later mourn the unfortunate episode that followed, it was a stark reminder of the threat that still faces Pakistan, especially during contentious periods like the elections.

Instances of violence are nothing new for Pakistan, particularly during the days leading up to elections. Incidents like these have taken place in the past, and it is highly likely that they will do so in the future as well. The current state of the world also reinforces this hypothesis, considering the increasingly polarized political climate in most countries, especially in the US and Europe. The former has seen a rising divide among its liberal and conservative voters, leading to clashes between different groups and cases of hate speech, as the nation continues to splinter under the decisive rule of Donald Trump. The latter has seen the rise of Right-Wing nationalist parties that have recently become popular in light of the significant migrant crisis affecting Europe over the past few years. As scores of migrants from Africa, Middle East and Asia pour in to Europe, there were bound to be cultural and ideological differences between these new comers, and the locals. The result has been a rising number of assault cases, clashes between different groups, and even acts of terrorism.

All these issues stem from the different political ideologies supported by a diverse group of people, leading to disputes among these opposing factions. However, instead of using logic and debate to settle their divides, more often than not, people are resorting to violence and hate speech to get their point across, and that is where the problem lies.

The 2018 General Elections

Months of talking, campaigning and finger pointing came to an end, when the election day finally arrived. Millions of people took to the streets and headed down to their nearest polling booth in order to make their own personal contribution to the progress of democracy in Pakistan. Sprits were high and there seemed to be a sense of hope in the air, yet it was not meant to last.

While the controversy surrounding the results of the elections and the mismanagement of the Election Commission Pakistan (ECP) dominated the news cycle, a bomb blast in Quetta seemed to have gone completely unnoticed by the majority of the people in the country. A suicide bomber, allegedly a member of ISIS, decided to target a police convoy stationed near a polling station in the city, and the resulting blast claimed the lives of over thirty people, with over thirty-five more seriously injured in the attack.

This reprehensible assault on the lives of the innocent was yet another example of the violence that has marred politics in Pakistan for many years, and the brave people of this country that continue to function like human beings, despite facing insurmountable odds every time they take part in a momentous event like the elections that are traditionally a target for most extremist organizations active in the country today.

This new tragedy took the number of casualties in the 2018 election cycle to over 210, an astonishing number when considering that the country’s previous most violent elections were back in 2013, when over 170 people lost their lives. Nobody ever expected that number to ever be exceeded yet, despite the arduous military campaigns to weed out terrorist factions from this land, this evil rears its head once again, reminding Pakistan of the menace that still exists within its borders.

The path forward

Now that election fever has died down, and the feeling of excitement or dread (depending on who you voted for) following the victory of the PTI has tapered off as well, it is time for the security forces to turn their attention back to the task at hand.

There is little doubt that there has been an orchestrated campaign to malign the military and its intelligence assets. Much of this criticism comes from abroad though they are picking up on what some of our own journalists are writing—in spite of the so called pressure on the media. The majority of the people have accepted the elections as free and fair and there is appreciation of the military for its support. One foreign writer has dredged up past military interventions to make a case for ‘establishment’ help to the winning party—PTI, completely ignoring the fact that the PPP was voted out on the basis of its performance and the same is the case with the PML(N) now. PTI was the new factor and the people voted for Imran Khan who is really nobody’s man and has his own way of doing things. What should be a major concern is the rise of IS-Khorasan in Afghanistan as is evident from the renewed violence there —and the terrorist attacks during the elections in Pakistan.

This election cycle witnessed an unprecedented level of violence, mostly due to the rising influence of ISIS in the country. The bomb blast in Mastung, at a rally for the Balochistan Awami Party, resulted in the deaths of over 145 people, while several hundred more were injured. This was amongst the worst terror attacks in Pakistan’s history, and while the constant election coverage helped dampen the devastating affect this incident might have had on the morale of the Pakistani voter, it is sure to have rattled the security agencies in charge of providing protection to its citizens. Even though they did relatively quite well in providing security to the thousands of polling stations across the country, these kinds of episodes need to be brought to an end as well.

It will be interesting to see how the PTI leadership react to these violent incidents, considering their leader, Imran Khan has, in the past, advocated for a nonviolent, and conciliatory dialogue as the best solution to counter terrorism in the country.  Whether he employs this particular strategy in the future, or chooses a firmer approach, remains to be seen. Regardless, his decision might have a serious impact on his reputation, especially in his first few months in office, and may even shape his legacy for years to come.