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Terror shadow on Pak polls

Naseema Begum, a government school teacher in Karachi’s middle income Garden Road locality, is not a happy woman. She has been assigned election duties in Karachi South, one of the city’s more troubled areas, reports Kamal Siddiqi.

world Updated: Dec 25, 2007 01:35 IST
Kamal Siddiqi

Naseema Begum, a government school teacher in Karachi’s middle income Garden Road locality, is not a happy woman. She has been assigned election duties in Karachi South, one of the city’s more troubled areas.

Here the fight will be between Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. Naseema Begum and other teachers at the Government Girls Secondary School on Garden Road say that it is the polling agents who have to bear the brunt of election violence. “Hooligans from one party came in when I was on duty and pointed a gun at me and told me to get lost. It was so humiliating,” she says, recalling a previous election.

Naseema believes that the MQM holds sway in most parts of Karachi, but points out that trouble arises in those constituencies where there is opposition. On previous occasions, the government has deputed the army and paramilitary Rangers force to protect polling stations but this time when polling takes place, the government has instead deputed civilians like firemen, civil defence volunteers and private security guards.

But the teachers are not impressed. Yeh aik chamaat kay hain (They are worth one slap) comments Muhibba Bano, a teacher also doing poll duty in January.

Bano says that they feel insecure when local police take charge as they run away at the slightest hint of trouble. “In fact they are also part of the rigging when it takes place,” she alleges. Government employees complain that they are forcibly drafted to election duties without any proper arrangements. “We get very little allowance, no transport and no security,” comments Bano.

This time round, they say, there is another danger because of which many are being advised to stay away despite strict government instructions to be present at their stations on polling day. The danger comes from religious militants who have threatened to blow up polling stations, particularly in the troubled tribal areas.

President Musharraf has alluded to this threat in his speeches and vowed that the democratic process “will not be hijacked by those who believe in extremism.” However, the rise in suicide attacks over the past week have again raised fears of election related attacks.

The attack on the welcome rally of Ms Bhutto in October in which hundreds died is fresh in the minds of people. “We are afraid of what can happen at rallies,” says Nasheed Ahmad, a resident of Rawalpindi who said he did not go to the airport to receive Ms Bhutto as he feared a possible suicide attack. “I cant help it,” he says, adding “my family members do not let me go.” That is one reason why election rallies are poorly attended, say observers.

The government has also issued a code of conduct under which political rallies can only be held in the daytime. “Our priority in the elections is to ensure law and order,” comments Brigadier Akhtar Zamin, the home minister for Sindh province where the most largely attended rallies are those in which Ms Bhutto is the main speaker.

However, a recent rally in Hyderabad was a disappointment.

In such uncertain times, there are expectations that voter turnout will be much lower than expected. The boycott by main religious parties will lead to lower voter turnout. Despite all the hype created by major politicians that this may be the election that will decide the future of President Musharraf, the chances are most Pakistanis will stay away from the polls.