Pakistan's liberal parties appear to lose in the upcoming parliamentary elections on May 11 - not because they are not popular but because they cannot campaign freely. The Taliban have declared an open war on them.
Recently, the Taliban have increased attacks on the members of liberal Pakistani parties like the Awami National Party (ANP), the former ruling party of President Zardari, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and have killed dozens of their officials. The militants have named them as their prime targets because of their secular credentials and their opposition to Islamic extremism in the Islamic republic. The liberal parties complain that they are unable to run their election campaign in this scenario and that it is a conspiracy to give an upper hand to the right-wing.
Faisal Subzwari, a senior leader of the MQM - the largest political party in Pakistan's economic hub Karachi - talks to DW about his party's concerns.
DW: Many of your party officials have been killed in terrorist attacks in the past one month. It is obvious that the MQM and other liberal parties are not able to campaign for the upcoming elections. Who do you blame for these attacks?
Faisal Subzwari: The Taliban have categorically said that they would target the MQM, the PPP, and the ANP during the election campaign for the upcoming elections. They clearly said that they were against these parties because of what they stood for. Before the start of the election campaign, they warned the people not to attend our public gatherings. Their objective is to create fear among people so that they don't vote for us in elections. They want the right-wing parties to win. The terrorists have proven that they are capable of attacking us anywhere in the country. It is equivalent to pre-poll rigging.
We see that the Taliban are able to target liberal politicians with a lot of ease. Is it a failure of Pakistan's security agencies or do you think they are conniving with the Islamists?
The Pakistani state supported the religious extremists during the 1980s Afghan war. What we see now is a result of that policy. I want to believe that the state is not supporting the extremists now. But our complaint is that the security officials are not acting against these people. And it is not that we did not warn them before. A few years ago, when the MQM said that the influence of the Taliban was growing in Karachi, people did not take us seriously and made fun of us. Now, people can see that the Taliban are operating in the city freely. We want to see a clear-cut strategy from the government against these militants.
Do you think that the religious or right-to-the-center parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami or Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are benefiting in elections as their campaigns are being spared by the Taliban?
I don't know how they will perform in elections but they are certainly benefiting in the election campaign. By attacking our public gatherings and assassinating our officials, the militants are trying to discourage our supporters from voting for us. Elections are not a proof of a party's popularity; it merely shows how many of your supporters go out on the polling day and cast vote for you. So the plan is to keep our supporters away from polling stations on election day. We are a popular party but it will be religious and conservative parties which are in a better position to take their supporters out on May 11. They know they won't be attacked.
Pakistan's political parties are not unanimous in their opposition to the Taliban. Conservative parties like the PTI and the Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif do not unequivocally condemn the attacks on liberal parties. More importantly, they never say the Taliban are doing this. Are these parties afraid of them or do they share their political ideology with the Taliban?
Their present actions, their politics in the past, and their future ambitions are a proof that they are not against the Taliban. It does not matter whether they condemn them or not. The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam work closely with the Taliban. The PTI and the Muslim League are just confused.
How will you campaign for elections in the present circumstances? Also, what will be the strategy of your party to defeat religious extremism in the coming years?
We won't boycott the elections. We are canvassing. We are not organizing big rallies due to security concerns but are still holding small public gatherings. We are trying to mobilize our supporters and telling them that if they don't go out on May 11 to cast their votes, the terrorists will succeed in their mission and the right-wing will win the elections. This will be a disaster for Pakistan. We are also working on a long term strategy to defeat religious extremism. We must understand that the NATO and the US troops will leave Afghanistan in 2014 but the extremists won't. Those who think that there will be peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the international forces leave Afghanistan are living in a fool's paradise. To counter these threats, we have to work on many levels.
Interview conducted by Shamil Shams