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Violent elections

Will the upcoming elections be violent? Can a substantial surge in incidents of violence and terrorism cause a delay? These and similar questions are in many minds these days.

There is no doubt that insecurity has gripped certain communities. Their concerns are genuine, but will such fears be eliminated if elections are delayed? Or, to put it another way, how does a delay in elections help achieve peace and security? Statistically speaking, the security situation in Pakistan was not ideal in 2008 during the electoral campaign period. As in 2013, the first two months of the last election year were very violent and a total of 374 terrorist attacks and incidents of ethno-political violence were reported, claiming the lives of 1,080 people.

According to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, the first two months of 2013 were somewhat more violent compared to the corresponding months of 2008. A total of 458 reported terrorist attacks and incidents of political vio-lence have so far claimed the lives of 1,135 people this year.

A comparison of the number of terrorist attacks and consequent casualties during these two periods, January and February in 2008 and 2013, suggests that the militants` operational capacity has increased. For instance, nationalist insurgents in Balochistan killed 37 people by launching 94 attacks in the first two months of 2008, but in the same months of 2013, they managed to kill 83 in 68 attacks. Incidents of ethno-political violence have taken more than 40 lives so far in 2013, while the casualties in such incidents were 22 in the first quarter of 2008.

A major difference, however, is the adoption of a new attack tactic by Sunni sectarian militant groups: to engineer massive blasts in Shia-populated areas.

This has significantly pushed up the casualty figures. On the whole, sectarian violence has increased in Pakistan in recent years and more significantly in the past few months, mainly in Quetta and Karachi. In the first two months of2013, 60 sectarian-related terrorist attacks took 238 lives, but during the corresponding period in 2008 only one such incident was reported, with no casualty.

Can insecurity become an excuse for delaying elections? Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf managed to hold elections during an almost similarly volatile situation. Why should the Election Commission of Pakistan and a constitutionally appointed caretaker government not be able to? As far as violence during elections is concerned, that may continue following the same trends, particularly sectarian violence. Notwithstanding the operational capabilities of terrorists, including factions of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Punjabi Taliban, it is imperative to look at the patterns.

First, consider the geographical spread of terrorist attacks. Currently, sectarian terrorist attacks are mostlyconfined to Karachi and Quetta, and the TTP and its affiliates are active in certain areas of Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; usually, these groups prioritise the targeting of the security forces and pro-state tribal elders. So far this year, the TTP has killed 119 personnel of the security forces in 68 attacks; during the same time period in 2008, the security forces suffered 303 fatalities in 152 attacks.

In fact, the TTP started the systematic killing of political workers after the elections of 2008. They got their inspiration from the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. For the majority of the people, it was difficult to imagine that Benazir Bhutto`s assassination was the handiwork of terrorists, and this encouraged the latter.

In 2008, terrorists killed 31 political leaders and workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, mainly belonging to the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) and the PPP. It is not hard to understand why: apart from having generally secular credentials, the government run bythese parties was an ally of the US.

Initially, only one faction of the TTP led by Mullah Fazlullah launched this campaign but later other groups also got involved. In this context, it is important to look into the behaviour of other militant groups.

The TTP and its affiliated groups are against the democratic system. They want to demolish the current democratic system in Pakistan and replace it with an Islamic caliphate system. But will they try to hit public places and rallies, which can further alienate them from society? At a time when terrorists have successfully created an atmosphere of fear for political parties, which are begging for peace, they would be foolish to dissipate this impression and be on the receiving end of public outrage by targeting rallies.

Actors of violence have destructive capacity across the country, but they have many constraints in terms of sabotaging the electoral process. Apart fromtheir strategic choice, which is mentioned earlier, the overall religious discourse is not in their favour.

The pervading sense of insecurity and fear could have a psychological impact on election campaignsand also on voter turnout. It could prove difficult to hold big public rallies, particularly in areas prone to violence and terrorism; but it could also provide the opportunity to political parties to employ more modern techniques to reach out to their voters, such as effective use of the media and expansion of door-to-door campaigns.

There is, nonetheless, little chance that any major political party will come up with a clear approach on internal security and terrorism to seek the public mandate.

Sectarian terrorism and ethno-political violence, mainly in Quetta and Karachi, may continue along a similar pattern, but the electoral process can continue. Any delay in the elections will not only badly damage the political discourse in the country; it will also convey a sense of victory to violent actors.

The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies. mamirrana@yahoo.com

Mohammad Amir Rana, "Violent elections," Dawn. 2013-03-10.