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Guns versus votes in Pakistan's election

By Graham Cooke - posted Monday, 8 April 2013


The announcement that Pakistan will go to the polls on 11 May has resulted in the expected upsurge in terrorist attacks. In Peshawar a small army of militants attacked a power station with assault weapons and rocket propelled grenades, killing eight people and taking four others hostage.

A few hours later a bomb blast at a checkpoint near Karachi killed four security personnel and injured four others.

These incidents followed a weekend blast at the campaign office of a supporter of Pakistan People's Party leader Asif Ali Zardari, killing two; an election commissioner was shot dead and pamphlets were distributed in Baluchistan Province threatening violence to anyone who turns up at a polling station on election day.

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While there are a number of terrorist organisations operating the country, some of them violently antagonistic to each other, the most likely group behind these outrages is Tenrik-i-Taliban, more simply known as the Pakistani Taliban.

Democratic elections are anathema to the Taliban, which regularly launches strikes from its stronghold in remote South Waziristan. Its philosophy is based on a strict interpretation of sharia law administered by clerics and enforced without recourse to dissent or argument. Overtures to bring it into the political mainstream in return for laying down its weapons have been rebuffed or simply ignored.

The current poll, Pakistan's first in which an elected civilian government has completed its term and offered itself for re-election, is an indication that for all its troubles, democracy is beginning to take hold in the country. Only by throwing everything into a campaign of disruption and intimidation, reducing voter turnout to a level where it can challenge the legitimacy of any government formed, can the Taliban maintain the fiction that its form of 'government' is best for and preferred by the population.

But despite the clear and present dangers there are hopes of an improvement on the 40 per cent turnout in 2008. In an interview, the chief election commissioner, Fakhruddin Ebrahim, said the country's predominantly young electorate was hungry for the international legitimacy that an administration clearly representing the will of the people would bring.

"We have a free media which clearly represents an enthusiasm for this election – I believe we could go as high as a 60 per cent turnout," he says.

"Of course there is continuing violence and the threat of violence to come and I don't think anyone can promise that the vote, when it is held, will be completely free and fair, but I think the 2013 election will be a turning point."

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Others are less optimistic. One anonymous official said the Taliban realised it would be lucky to get 10 per cent of the vote if it stood as a political party. "Its indiscriminate bombings have alienated even those who might be its natural supporters," he said.

"However, it only takes a few hundred, perhaps less, fanatics to spread fear throughout the country and severely disrupt the election process."

Which throws a massive responsibility on the security forces to counter these threats. Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, who has returned to Pakistan after years of self-imposed exile to lead his All Pakistan Muslim League in the election, believes the army should actually conduct the poll, but in a country which has seen military coups in the past, this might be one step too far.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.


He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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