by Zia Ur Rehman
April 26-May 3, 2013
As political and religious parties gear up for the general elections scheduled on May 11, activists of the liberal Awami National Party (ANP) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA are concerned about their safety.
Analysts say Taliban attacks on ANP rallies will help right-wing groups – some of which are seen as ideologically aligned with the Taliban – in the upcoming polls in the militancy hit province.
On April 16, 17 people were killed and more than 40 injured in a suicide attack on an ANP rally where Ghulam Ahmad Bilour, a senior ANP leader and candidate from NA-1, had just arrived to address his supporters.
On April 17, the residence of Farooq Khan, a district leader of ANP, was targeted in a bomb attack in Charsadda.
Also in April, ANP leader Mukarram Shah died after his car was blown up in Manglawar area of Swat, and former MPA Adnan Wazir was injured when a remote-controlled bomb exploded near his vehicle in Frontier Region Bannu.
Arbab Ayub Jan, a former ANP agriculture minister, survived an assassination bid on April 12 in Chamkani area of Peshawar. Syed Masoom Shah, an ANP candidate from PK-21 and advisor of outgoing chief minister Amir Haider Hoti, was hurt in a bomb attack near Shabqadar, the gateway to Mohmand tribal region.
Party leaders and analysts agree that the ANP – one of the strongest political forces in the province – is being targeted because of its Pashtun-nationalist secular outlook. The party has always opposed the Taliban and their predecessors, the Afghan mujahedeen. ANP has lost scores of party workers and lawmakers in attacks carried out by the Taliban, but its leadership is defiant and has pledged to continue to fight the militants.
In a recent TV interview, ANP chief Asfandyar Wali said the Taliban began to attack them after he refused to provide them a safe passage to attack Punjab. He said Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah asked him in a telephone call for a safe passage to carry out attacks in Punjab in return for his party’s safety, but he refused.
A day after surviving the April 16 attack, Ghulam Ahmad Bilour said he would name the president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the chief election commissioner in the police report if his party was targeted again. The ANP has been complaining that it is not being given adequate security despite constant threats and attacks by the Taliban. His brother, the veteran ANP leader Bashir Bilour, was also killed in a Taliban attack in Peshawar months ago when he was a provincial minister.
In recent announcements, the Taliban have warned people to stay away from political gatherings organized by the ANP, the People’s Party, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. A militant associated with the Fazlullah faction of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan said his group was targeting the ANP because it was secular, “anti-Islamist” and cooperating with the US, it had mobilized people against the Taliban, and because it was part of the outgoing government that carried out law-enforcement operations against the Taliban, especially in Swat. He said the Taliban would also target ANP leaders in Karachi and Balochistan.
Security experts say continued attacks on the ANP’s election campaign are helping their political rivals. Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a political analyst based in Swat, said the ANP were cut off from the people because of security fears, and that was sending the voters away towards Fazlur Rehman’s faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). “These parties have easier access to people because of their softer views on Taliban,” Yousafzai said. Some ANP leaders and political analysts call the attacks pre-poll rigging by the Taliban. Yousafzai said that “some forces” were trying to keep liberal politicians away from the parliament.
Political workers are concerned about their safety. “We cannot move freely to mobilize our supporters or run an election campaign in the province because of security threats posed by the Taliban,” said Hassan Buneri, a district leader of ANP in Buner. “One the other hand, our rivals from the JI can easily organize rallies and public gatherings.” According to local newspapers, pamphlets distributed in parts of the province warned people against putting up ANP stickers and flags on cars and houses.
“We have devised ways to approach the voters, like holding corner meetings in walled compounds and door-to-door campaigns, without exposing anyone to harm,” an ANP candidate from Swat said.
Hassan Buneri said the party’s candidates have been asked to issue regular statements to local print media and use text messages for their campaign. A source in the party said there was internal pressure on the central ANP leadership to boycott the elections, but it decided to contest the elections despite the threats.
Dozens of ex-parliamentarians from the ANP and its allies have defected to religious parties, ostensibly because of security concerns. Leaders who have recently left the party include former MNA Istiqbal Khan from Buner, and former MPAs Fazal Shakoor from Charsadda, Sajjadullah Khan from Kohistan, Qazi Asad from Haripur, and Mian Nisar Gul from Karak.
Other ANP leaders say relentless attacks on the party leadership have increased their popularity across the province. Many of their disgruntled workers have re-joined them, and some leaders from rival political parties have joined the ANP in recent weeks. They include Safdar Baghi, former Union Council mayor and a PTI leader. He said he was inspired by the sacrifices made by the ANP for peace in the province.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) condemned the recent terrorist attacks on political parties in a statement, and asked the government to protect politicians. “The Commission finds the situation in regard to the ANP as particularly alarming,” according to the statement. “The ANP has been the victim and target of a vicious and consistent campaign of terrorism.”
In his TV interview, Asfandyar Wali also complained his right-wing rivals had not condemned the attacks on his party, and only Asif Ali Zardari and Altaf Hussain had called him when Bashir Bilour was killed. “Tomorrow, it will be your turn,” he said, warning his rivals that the Taliban did not believe in democracy and would not even spare conservative politicians.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. Email: email@example.com and Twitter: @zalmayzia