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Threatened Pakistani parties conduct virtual campaigns
Days ahead of the historic May 11 polls, candidates from three secular Pakistani parties targeted by the Taliban are being forced to conduct virtual campaigns while politicians such as Imran Khan are able to hold traditional large rallies.
More than 30 TV screens line the walls of the room, broadcasting continuous coverage of the election campaign. This is not a TV studio – although it certainly looks like one. It’s the headquarters of the MQM (Muttahida Quami Movement) party, one of the most powerful parties in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh.
The MQM headquarters, situated in the teeming port city of Karachi – the capital of Sindh province – is probably one of the most dangerous places in Pakistan today.
There have been multiple attacks targeting MQM candidates and activists on the campaign trail, resulting in more than 40 deaths since the Taliban promised to destroy this Pakistani secular political party.
A week before the May 11 election, two bombs were detonated a few hundred meters from the party headquarters, killing two people and injuring dozens of others. MQM leader Anees Qaim Khani is said to have narrowly escaped the bombing as he was in the office when the two improvised explosive devices went off.
Since then, the Azizabad neighbourhood of Karachi, a residential area that is home to the MQM headquarters, has been under tight security. Hundreds of armed guards man checkpoints and some are stationed on rooftops, monitoring access to the MQM headquarters, which is popularly known as “Nine Zero” in this city.
On May 11, Pakistan will cross a historic milestone when the country goes to the polls, marking the first time a civilian government has completed its term in office in the country’s 66-year history.
But in a country marked by bloodshed, elections are a particularly violent period. In the lead-up to the last general election in 2008, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was killed at a campaign rally on December 27, 2007, sending shockwaves across Pakistan and handing her PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) a victory in the polls.
The run-up to the May 11 election, when Pakistanis will elect 272 deputies to the National Assembly, has witnessed a series of targeted attacks, taking the death toll of candidates and party activists to more than 100 since early April.
Taliban targets three secular parties
The Pakistani Taliban has singled out three secular political parties – including the MQM, the PPP and the ANP (Awami National Party), a liberal, nationalist party that represents Pakistan’s Pashtun population, thereby posing a threat to the Islamist militant group in its tribal heartlands near the Afghanistan border.
While the Taliban have denounced the elections, democracy and the three secular parties, they have largely avoided targeting the religious JUI (Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam) party as well as former cricketer Imran Khan’s PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League-N) party.
With the Taliban’s sights turned on the three major secular parties, candidates have been forced to abandon large gatherings and are trying to make up for the lack of exposure by harnessing the power of social media sites.
"We try to minimize our appearances while optimizing our visibility through Twitter and Facebook," said Faisal Sabzwari, an MQM candidate who regularly receives letters threatening him with death.
To do this, the MQM has increased the size of its communications team. "At first, we had 80 members in the department and about a thousand volunteers in our constituencies,” said Sabzwari. “But over the past two months, with the upsurge in violence, we have recruited nearly 2,000 additional volunteers."
It’s a large network that enables the party to conduct one of the most active social media campaigns. According to Sabzwari, the MQM has broken the record for the number of tweets posted per day. "In April, we tweeted up to 19,000 messages per day - this is a record for Pakistan,” said Sabzwari.
The PPP, the party of outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari, has also been forced to keep a low profile. "In the last elections, we organized up to ten public meetings per day in Karachi,” recounts Taj Haider, the PPP’s general secretary for Sindh province. “Today, to campaign, we sit behind our computers.”
Indeed, it is through television commercials or emails that the most threatened PPP candidates communicate with their constituents and transmit their instructions to thousands of activists.
"We provide publications and flyer templates to our teams who are then responsible for printing and distributing them on the ground," explained Haider.
Old rivals in the Pashtun heartlands
But the party that has borne the brunt of the Taliban attacks over the past few years has been the ANP, a liberal nationalist party that draws it support base from the Pashtun-dominated tribal region and poses a historical threat to the Taliban.
Over the past five years, more than 700 party activists have been killed in attacks in the tribal areas, forcing the party to resort to underground campaigning methods.
"In recent months, even our volunteers making phone calls have been attacked,” said Bashir Jan, ANP secretary general, displaying an arm that has turned bluish with the impact of bullet wounds, including some shrapnel that remains lodged under his skin. “For years, we have operated on the principle of quasi-secret meetings, speeches made via Skype and telephone, or door-to-door campaigns by volunteers.”
Jan says he has survived four attempts on his life by the Taliban – including an attack on his car last week. “I miraculously survived, but three people were killed and 60 were injured,” he said. “That’s when I said a red line had been crossed.”
The ANP has since stopped campaigning in three of the four provinces of the country – which is a bad omen for democracy.
"It's a bad start for genuinely free and democratic elections,” said the MQM’s Sabzwari. “The prerequisite for democracy is that all parties can campaign equally. We're a long way from that.”