In a country where politicians strive to hold vast political rallies with huge crowds of supporters, it is hard to imagine a campaign event more low key than the one held recently in an almost pitch-black backstreet in Dera Ismail Khan.
Illuminated only by the headlights of a nearby car, the candidate standing for a seat in Pakistan’s parliament made a brief speech to the hundred or so supporters mustered at short notice, before being ushered back to his armoured car by a team of bodyguards wearing white bulletproof vests over their white cotton shalwar kameez.
Ever since the Pakistani Taliban declared war on politicians from the country’s three mainstream secular parties last month, such “corner meetings” have become the new normal for politicians such as Waqar Ahmed Khan, a sitting senator from the Pakistan People’s party (PPP).
“He knows he has to be careful,” said Mansoor Akbar Kundi, the vice-chancellor of the city’s university and a friend of Khan. “The Taliban threat makes activists and candidates like Waqar less active than they would otherwise be. They just can’t penetrate among the masses like they could in the past.”
Khan plays down the threat, saying the shabby city is not as badly hit as other areas in the predominantly Pashtun lands bordering Afghanistan, the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
But just a few hours earlier, an activist from another party had been killed when his car was fired at. The incident barely registered in the national media of a country growing used to a relentless campaign of violence against politicians. So far more than 50 people have been killed, including one candidate, and 200 injured. The Pakistani Taliban are determined to use fear and violence to rig historic elections due to be held on 11 May in favour of rightwing religious parties that sympathise with the militants – and many analysts think they are succeeding.
Politicians can’s say they weren’t warned. Last month, the Taliban released a video telling the public to stay away from rallies held by the PPP, the Awami National party (ANP) and Muttahida Qaumio Movement (MQM). All three are secular, have shared power during the last tumultuous five years and backed military campaigns against militants.