Right over the precipice
Why the real game changer in Pakistan's elections could be the radical right, and why India should worry.
It was a speech made with a stilted accent, but clearly aimed at extremists in Pakistani politics. "If you want to live then you have to fight against this mindset," said Bilawal Bhutto, heir apparent of the PPP in his first campaign speech. "We have to defeat those who tortured women in Swat, who bombed our mosques, who wanted to keep our innocent girls like Malala (Yusufzai) away from schools, and now style themselves as political leaders," he further said.
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 his 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 TTP (Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan) spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan last month, in which he told the public to avoid any rallies held by those 3 parties.
The TTP has backed up those threats with several attacks on election rallies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Karachi, that have killed more than 50 people in the past month of campaigning. "Our hands and feet are tied and we are supposed to run a marathon," says Awami National Party (ANP) leader Haroon Bilour, whose father was assassinated in December 2012, while he and his uncle have escaped several threats to their life, including a suicide attack on April 17. Many candidates, especially women candidates are now withdrawing from the race given the threats.
But it isn't just the militants who are keeping 'secular' candidates away from campaigning in this election. 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 contentious constitutional clauses were inserted in 1985 by General Zia Ul Haq , to ensure that a candidate must practice Islamic duties, be "sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest", and must never have opposed the "ideology of Pakistan". The qualifications are by definition subjective, and Returning officers have enforced them for the first time in this election, asking candidates to recite Quranic verses by heart, asking how many times they pray, even telling women candidates to stay home and mind their children according to Islamic tenets.
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 respected journalist Amir Mir (writing in 'The News') is that 55 candidates in Punjab province have been cleared to stand despite serious terrorism charges against them. The 55 names, were even listed under the 4th Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, Mir reports, which the election commission has chosen to ignore.
Even in the absence of such worries, the PPP, and its allies in government MQM and ANP aren't the frontrunners in this election. The PPP has lost credibility over corruption, inflation and its mismanagement of the Pakistani 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 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 JuI (Jamaat Islaami) and the MDM, if they make inroads in Punjab, the state with the highest representation in the National Assembly.
The significant step to the right in Pakistani elections casts a wider print in the region. To begin with, the 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 Chief Justice Ifthikar Chaudhry all set to end between September and December 2013.
If President Zardari manages another term, he will have an important say in who will lead the Pakistani army during the next big event in the region- the pullout of ISAF forces from Afghanistan,Afghan Presidential elections, and the possible return of the Taliban. For India too, many conclude that the recent resurgence in militant activity in Jammu and Kashmir ties in with the moves to the radical right in the neighbourhood. The biggest worry, however, maybe what a new Parliament with a sizable population of this radical right may have on Pakistan's democracy, where people have never in the past voted them in.
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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