It was a speech made with a stilted accent, but clearly aimed at extremists in Pakistan. “If you want to live, then you have to fight against their mindset,” said Bilawal Bhutto, heir apparent of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in his first campaign address, “We have to defeat those who flogged women in Swat, who bombed our mosques, who wanted to keep our innocent girls like Malala away from schools.”
Yet the most telling part about the speech was that it wasn’t made from a dais to cheering political supporters, but online, in a video shared by Bhutto’s party. The militant threat, he explained, was keeping him away from public appearances. The young Bhutto isn’t the only political leader curtailing campaign appearances in the run-up to the election on May 11. Many leaders of the so-called ‘secular’ parties, PPP, MQM and the ANP have suspended speeches after a direct threat from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan last month, in which he told the public to avoid any rallies held by these three parties.
The TTP has backed up those threats with attacks on candidates in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Balochistan, and even Karachi, where it claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed six people outside the campaign headquarters of the MQM last week. The ANP too saw a bomb explosion at a rally in Karachi, and several others in KPK.
Militants aren’t the only force keeping ‘secular’ candidates away from campaigning in this election, however. From the start of the election process in March, the election commission seems to have tried to weed out candidates who didn’t adhere to Islamic principles in politics, liberally applying articles 62-63 of the constitution to reject nomination papers. Those constitutional clauses were inserted in 1985 by General Zia-ul-Haq, to ensure that every candidate performs Islamic duties, is “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest”, and never opposes the “ideology of Pakistan”. The qualifications are by definition subjective, and returning officers enforced them liberally for the first time in this election, asking candidates to recite Quranic verses by heart, even telling women candidates to stay home and mind their children according to Islamic tenets. In this, they have received support from the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Conversely, the election commission has done little to bar 130 radical Deobandi candidates of the Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and Sipah-e-Sahaba (now re-christened the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat) and other groups now standing under the umbrella Muttahida Deeni Mahaz (MDM) for national and provincial elections. In the MDM’s manifesto, they demand that all public officials appointed be “male Sunni Muslims”, promising a “true Islamic Caliphate” in Pakistan. What’s more worrying, according to journalist Amir Mir (writing in The News) is the fact that 55 candidates in Pakistan’s Punjab province have been cleared to contest despite serious terrorism charges against them.
Even in the absence of such worries, however, the PPP and its allies in government, the MQM and ANP, aren’t the frontrunners in this election. The PPP has lost credibility over corruption charges, inflation and its mismanagement of the economy, while the PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif has been gaining in popularity, according to recent surveys. The PTI’s Imran Khan is expected to do well amongst the youth, a sizeable constituency, and could prove the dark horse, especially in a province like the frontier KPK, where his stand against the US’s relentless drones’ campaign has won him massive crowds. Both the PML-N and the PTI are also in a better position to form a government with help from right-wing parties like the Jamaat Islaami and the MDM, if they make inroads in Punjab, the state with the highest representation in the National Assembly.
A step to the right in Pakistani elections will cast a wider print in the region. To begin with, these elections will decide the fate of Pakistan’s power structure by the end of the year — with the terms of President Zardari, Army chief General Kayani and the chief justice all set to end between September and December 2013.
The next president, Zardari or otherwise, will have an important say in who will lead the Pakistani army during the next big shift in the region — the pullout of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, Afghan presidential elections, and the possible return of the Taliban. For India too, the recent resurgence in militant activity in Jammu and Kashmir ties in with the moves to the radical right in the neighbourhood, and could escalate.
The biggest worry, however, is what impact a new Parliament with a sizeable population of this radical right would have on Pakistan’s democracy, given that in the past they have never been legitimately voted in by the people.
Suhasini Haidar is foreign affairs editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.