Will pre-election violence impact Pakistan's elections?

At least eight people were killed and 40 more injured in a suicide bombing this morning in northwest Pakistan. The country has seen scores killed in pre-election violence.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
Pakistani police officers cordon off the site of attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday. A suicide bomber targeting policemen killed at least eight people in northwestern Pakistan on Monday in the latest attack ahead of next month's parliamentary election, police said.

At least eight people were killed and 40 more injured in a suicide bombing on a busy road in the Pakistani city of Peshawar Monday morning. The attack capped off a weekend of election-related violence as the country prepares to go to the polls May 11.

The bomber missed his ostensible target, a local commissioner, instead crashing his motorcycle into a passenger bus, Pakistan’s News International reports. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the Pakistani Taliban have carried out a range of similar attacks against secular political parties over the past several weeks.

Indeed, the explosion came just a day after two Taliban attacks targeting political candidates in northwestern Pakistan killed at least eight and injured dozens more. The Taliban and other groups have been responsible for at least 77 deaths in 44 election-related attacks since the beginning of April, Human Rights Watch told The New York Times.

"We are not in favor of democracy. Democracy is for Jews and Christians," Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud said in a recent propaganda video, according to CNN. He implored Pakistanis not to participate in the upcoming elections.

"We want the implementation of Sharia [law], and for that jihad is necessary,” he said.

The May elections will be the first in the country’s checkered political history when one democratically elected government will make way for another, and the uptick in militant violence leading to the historic vote has rattled both domestic and international observers.

But they remain divided on whether or not the spate of attacks will have a significant affect on the election’s outcome at the national level, particularly since neither of the two parties leading in polling over the past three months are among those targeted by the attacks.

As one analyst writing in the Pakistani daily Dawn argues, the violence, though significant, is too sporadic and narrowly targeted to create the kind of chaos necessarily to significantly sway the election’s results.

As for violence making elections impossible, the quantum would have to jump multifold and that too in key urban towns to spread the kind of fear that would result in elections being postponed. The ‘threshold rule’ applies here: the state has virtually no capacity to prevent targeted violence up to a certain threshold; beyond this, the militants have little chance of carrying out a coordinated campaign of major attacks in city centres in a short time. There is little reason to believe this will be upended over the coming fortnight.

Two of the frontrunners in the national campaign are the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and the centrist party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Taliban attacks, on the other hand, have largely targeted left-leaning parties, including the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), and the Awami National Party (ANP).

Local candidates for these parties complain that the violence has forced them to dramatically scale back their campaigning activities, leaving the field open for Islamist candidates to win over voters.

"If you tie my hands, and you want me to fight, I can’t,” Mian Iftikhar Hussain, a local candidate for the ANP in the city of Peshawar, told Dawn. 

Overall, however, there is halting optimism in many quarters for Pakistan’s fragile democratic institutions. As the Monitor reported in March, the Pakistani National Assembly recently completed a five-year term for the first time in the country’s history, a signal that the country is finding new and non-militaristic ways to respond to its political grievances.   

“These five years we saw many instances of corruption, confrontations with the judiciary, and absence of law and order,” says Rasul Bakhsh Raees, a professor of political science in Lahore, pointing to Karachi and Balochistan. “But the military decided not to intervene, which shows even their attitude is changing.” …

“Every phase of democracy in Pakistan has been a battle, but the trend shows it’s [heading] toward improving the overall institutional balance,” [he says].

Violence also cast a shadow over Pakistan’s last election, in 2008. On Dec. 27, 2007, Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister and the head of the PPP – then the leading opposition party – was assassinated after a campaign rally. Two months later, however, her party and the PLM-N emerged victorious from the campaign and formed a coalition government. That August, former military leader Pervez Musharraf stepped down as president and went into exile, formally ending his nine-year military rule.  

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