Back-to-back blasts in Pakistan highlight election risks

More than two dozen people were killed and 70 injured today in two bombings that targeted politicians campaigning in northwest Pakistan for the May 11 general election.

Shakil Adil/AP
Supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf headed by Pakistan's cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan, rally at the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan in Karachi, Pakistan, Tuesday.

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There were two more bombings targeting political events today in the leadup to Pakistan's historic May 11 Parliamentary elections, raising fears that the violence could affect voter turnout in what is already being referred to as Pakistan’s bloodiest elections.

Today’s first attack took place as a candidate from the hardline Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party passed through a market in northwest Pakistan. The politician – from the same party that was targeted by a deadly blast yesterday in the same region – escaped unharmed. But the suicide bombing killed at least 12 people.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the Taliban took credit for yesterday’s attack at a political rally, which claimed 25 lives and wounded 70, according to the Associated Press. Another blast went off today at a Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) rally in Lower Dir, killing at least four, including the brother of a candidate.

Some 100 people have been killed in election-related violence since April, when the election campaign officially launched, reports Radio Free Europe. Secular candidates, political offices, and political events have all been targeted in the leadup to the vote, which will be the first time in Pakistan's 66-year history that it transitions from one civilian government to another.

Prior to the bombings this week, many observers believed election-related violence could benefit parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, which have typically taken a “softer line” toward the Taliban, according to the AP. Most of the violence in the leadup to the election targeted secular parties, which backed the military’s attempts to clear Pakistan’s northwestern region of Taliban and militant activity.

But the Taliban have also condemned democracy as a whole, meaning that any political party taking part in the elections could be considered fair game by the militant group. Militants have called on people in many areas to stay away from the polls on election day.

In 2008, the last time Pakistanis went to the polls, only 44 percent of the voter population showed up, thanks in part to violence. This year's election turbulence has many worried the voter turnout could be even lower, prompting the Election Commission in Pakistan to announce it was increasing security around polling stations in Karachi, according to the Dawn.

In spite of the attacks, there are numerous efforts to “get out the vote” in Pakistan, including groups that specifically target women and youth. According to the The Christian Science Monitor, only 38 percent of registered female voters cast a ballot in 2008, compared to 50 percent of registered males. Activists are trying to shift that trend this time around, reaching out to women in rural areas who may not even have the national ID card required to vote.

There is attention on the youth population as well, which is about 25 million strong. By some estimates, between 60 and 70 percent of that population may turn out to vote on Saturday, though a culture of disenchantment with the government could affect those numbers. The Monitor reports that a British Council study in April found “roughly similar percentages [of youth] expressing support for sharia (Islamic law) or military rule as express support for democracy.

Both of this week’s attacks took place in areas known to be “flashpoints” for violence between Pakistan’s Sunni majority and Shiite minority, reports BBC News.

According to a separate AP report, Pakistan’s violence reflects the numerous militant-related problems facing both the government and the military, and religious minorities in the majority Muslim country of 180 million may be suffering the most.

“Intolerance has been on the rise for the past five years under Pakistan’s democratically elected government because of growing violence of Islamic radicals, who are then courted by political parties,” say many of the country’s religious minorities, according to AP.

Some of the fiercest Islamic extremists are candidates in the vote, and minorities say even the mainstream political parties pander to radicals to get votes, often campaigning side-by-side with well-known militants.

After a string of attacks on religious minorities earlier this spring, public policy adviser Mosharraf Zaidi wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that the government’s inaction is allowing extremists to tear apart the fabric of Pakistani society. 

[A]ll Pakistan seems to be capable of doing lately is announcing days of mourning, expressing condemnation, and occasionally mobilizing a protest ... If this is the only response to the killing of innocent people because of their religion, it probably makes sense for the killers to carry on with the carnage. And that's exactly what has been happening….

Could the country's political parties be treating violent extremists with kid gloves in the hopes of gaining an edge at the ballot box? It is a question that shouldn't require asking in a country that has lost as many as 40,000 people in violent conflict with terrorists….

In a functional and self-respecting society, condemnations and days of mourning constitute only the first step in responding to outrages that soak the streets in the blood of innocents. The actual response must end the freedom of killers and include an unambiguous statement of intent to eliminate the threat to innocent people.

Elections have already been postponed in three districts where candidates have been killed this election season, reports Agence-France Presse.

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