Last Friday, a suicide bomber killed 149 and wounded nearly 200 in an attack in the Mastung district of the Balochistan province. The attack took place at a rally for the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and killed BAP leader Siraj Raisani, who was running for a seat in Pakistan’s provincial assembly.
TV footage shows Raisani addressing his speech to an enormous crowd. Then, the image cuts to black. The attack was Pakistan’s third deadliest bombing to date. Many of the wounded are still in critical conditions in Mastung hospitals, so the death toll is likely to rise over the coming days. Nine children were killed.
This tragedy heightens the chaos of an already-tumultuous election season. The Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies reports 158 killed and over 670 wounded in 120 attacks in the six weeks leading up to the election. This is Pakistan’s second democratic transition of power, and so the course of this election could have a serious impact on public attitudes towards the democratic process. So far, the people have every reason to feel discouraged.
The vote on Wednesday will come down to two candidates—former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party, and Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, a political newcomer and celebrity best known for leading Pakistan to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup.
Sharif has had a tense relationship with the Pakistan military for years. He is currently in jail for buying expensive London properties through offshore companies, but his family claims that the entire affair has been a conspiracy engineered by the military. And indeed, Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Wilson Center in Washington DC said that “the military has little desire to see the PMLN return to power and it is willing to engineer actions behind the scenes that undercut the PLMN’s prospects in a big way.”
The military seems to be pulling strings to ensure that Sharif is not elected. Members of the PMLN party have reported harassment and unwarranted arrests. Senior party members report being threatened by military intelligence agencies. Journalists say that they’ve experienced pressure to support the PTI and avoid covering the PMLN or criticizing the army. The Dawn newspaper, which leans in support of the PMLN, says that its distribution has been blocked. 17,000 party supporters have found themselves charged with crimes. Journalist and author Ahmed Rashid said that “this will be the dirtiest, most dishonest and rigged election that Pakistan’s beleaguered public has ever face. There is a growing cacophony of voices from major political parties, human rights groups, academics, civil society groups, and minorities that this will turn out to be a fraudulent election” (quote courtesy of the Guardian).
Experts on Pakistan fear that a rigged election could lead to a hung parliament of a weak governing coalition. “That’s exactly the type of administration the military would want, because a fragile and divided government would be easier to exploit than a united one with a strong mandate,” said Kugelman (quote courtesy of the Guardian).
The military’s intervention in the election is a violation of the rights of the people of Pakistan. This country’s infant democracy cannot survive if elections are rigged in such a way, and peaceful transitions of power are crucial for a country with such an unstable past.
Imran Khan is close to winning. His combination of anti-American rants, stance against corruption, and rapport with religious groups (he’s been nicknamed “Taliban Khan”), not to mention his beloved popular image, has proved to be effective—with or without intervention on the part of the military. Still, the people are not satisfied. They took to the streets on Sunday in an unprecedented anti-military protest. Footage of the protest circulated widely on WhatsApp.
In the midst of an election marred by brutal violence and coercion, this act provides a glimpse of hope. The people of Pakistan have not been utterly discouraged yet; they will continue to fight for the free, open, and honest future of their country.