On May 11, Pakistan's nearly 90 million voters are expected to head to vote in Pakistan’s general elections. But violence and intimidation from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP or Pakistani Taliban) against the three secular parties — Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Awami National Party (ANP), and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) — has some saying the election is already rigged.
Described as "the mother of all elections," the 2013 race is to determine the seats in Pakistan's National Assembly. They are particularly significant because they mark the first time in the country's history in which the outgoing party has completed its five-year term and in which the military will not be interfering in the transfer of power.
Alongside outgoing coalition leaders the PPP and fellow coalition members ANP and the liberal but often violent MQM, other parties include the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), which is right-leaning, pro-business, and led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Another party, the Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI), is led by cricket star Imran Khan and has been gaining significant ground. Along with these parties are the Islamist Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI) and Jamaat-e Islami (JI) parties.
In December, the TTP issued a statement specifically targeting the PPP, ANP, and MQM. With nearly 100 dead since April, the election has been among the most violent in the country’s history, yet the PNL-N and PTI have so far been unscathed. This is likely due to Sharif’s opposition to military campaigns against the Taliban and alleged ties to al-Qaeda linked groups, as well as Imran Khan's support for entering into talks with the TTP and his vocal opposition to U.S. drone strikes. The JUI and JI were also not listed as targets. This has not spared them from the threat of violence. On May 6, a bomb blast killed 20 at a rally for a JUI candidate. When claiming responsibility for the attack, the Taliban spokesperson said it was because the candidate allowed for Arab jihadists turned over to the U.S.
Hardest hit by the violence has been the ANP. The party is based in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and hold significant sway amongst Pashtuns, the ethnic group that makes up the majority of Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. They position themselves as a nationalist party, and their spokesman, Mian Hussain, is an outspoken Taliban critic. Because of his views he has yet to campaign in person, and with good reason. Since the 2008 elections, 700 ANP members have been killed. In 2010 militants shot his son, and a suicide bomber attacked the ensuing funeral. Seven others, including some close family members, were killed in that attack.
Instead of speaking at large rallies, Hussain does the majority of his campaigning by distributing DVDs of a documentary about his work development work, that also highlights the sadness he continues to feel over his son's murder. Many other secular politicians have stopped public campaigning in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the nearby tribal areas, Balochistan, and the city of Karachi.
Hussain claims the violence is tantamount to "pre-poll rigging," ensuring that only parties soft on the Taliban will be elected. There may be some truth to this, as Mr. Sharif appears to be the front runner and Khan, while unlikely to win, has been making waves as he speaks at rallies across the country. His recent fall from an improvised stage and hospitalization might actually strengthen support for him.
But the question must be asked: is the TTP actually rigging the elections? Election-rigging has a long history in Pakistan, stretching back into the 1950s. It has come to be defined as the "rival candidates' ability to cast bogus votes," which is not necessarily what the TTP is doing.
What is certain is that violence is certainly rendering the playing field uneven, with Khan crisscrossing the country in a helicopter while overtly secular politicians can only speak with relatively small, local crowds. This imbalance most certainly erodes away the legitimacy of the democratic process. At the same time, the PPP and ANP parties have governed as a coalition for five years, and should have had the opportunity to establish themselves and develop strong, dedicated networks of supporters. If they are defeated, it cannot be based entirely upon being sidelined by TPP violence.
Regardless of who emerges victorious, the damage TTP violence may have done to democratic legitimacy may be laying the groundwork for a turbulent five years. Furthermore, the TTP have recently released plans to bomb polling stations throughout the country in an explicit attempt to undermine the democratic process. But, as Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsi recently wrote: "And so in parts of the country where the threat of more attacks on Election Day is high, no matter whom people vote for, simply by going to the polling stations they will be casting their ballots against the Pakistani Taliban." Indeed, the numbers of those who turn out might shape future of the country more than the parties elected into office.