Pakistan's liberal Awami National Party says it cannot run its election campaign in northwestern areas because of the attacks on its leaders by the Taliban. The right wing appears set to benefit.
The Pakistani Taliban has killed hundreds of secular Awami National Party (ANP) officials in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the last five years. But of late, the banned militant group has increased its attacks on the ANP leaders. This puts the ANP in a difficult situation as it cannot campaign freely for the May 11 parliamentary elections.
Former railway minister and senior leader of the ANP, Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, was injured in a suicide bomb attack last week while campaigning in Peshawar. Around 18 ANP workers were killed in the attack claimed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
It is not the first time that the Taliban have targeted an ANP leader. The ANP - the former ruling party of the strategically important Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan - has lost hundreds of its workers and a number of its senior officials over the last few years. The Taliban have named the ANP, the former ruling party of President Zardari, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) as its prime targets because of their secular credentials and their opposition to Islamic extremism in the country.
In December, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a 69-year-old former provincial minister and senior leader of the ANP, was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban in Peshawar. Bilour was an outspoken critic of the Taliban and Islamic extremism.
No campaign for the ANP
The ANP complains it cannot run the election campaign smoothly in the present situation where its leaders are targeted and its public gatherings are attacked by the militants.
"The ANP is unable to campaign properly in this situation. It is true that their campaign has been badly affected," Shahid Ullah Jan, a human rights activist in Peshawar, told DW, adding that the ANP leaders were justified in demanding additional security.
But the caretaker government, which was instated after the PPP finished its tenure in March to conduct "free and fair" polls, hasn’t done much to address the ANP’s concerns. The ANP criticizes the interim government, the election commission, and other political parties for not standing up in support of it. It claims that by not unequivocally condemning the extremists, the government and mainstream political parties are strengthening the Taliban and giving their sympathizers undue advantage in elections.
Experts are of the view that conservative parties like Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf and former PM Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League, and Islamic groups like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Jamaat-e-Islami are benefiting from the ANP's quandary. These parties are believed to be "sympathetic" towards the Taliban and other Islamist groups.
Khan - who has emerged as one of the forerunners in upcoming elections, particularly in northwestern areas - wants to negotiate with the Taliban and stop Pakistan's support to the US in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. Unlike the ANP, the Khan's party is able to hold huge rallies and public gatherings even in towns which are considered the Taliban strongholds.
The ANP, the PPP, and the MQM are the only mainstream political parties in Pakistan which openly criticize the Taliban and support the fight against extremism. But the ANP's stakes in Pakistan's fight against terror are higher than those of any other political party in Pakistan. The ANP is a pre-dominantly Pashtun organization, as is the Taliban. Losing the battle against the Taliban means losing political power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The ANP, whose long history of secular politics goes back to the time of its founder Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as the Frontier's Gandhi), has ruled the province for many decades. Due to growing extremism in its own constituency, nonetheless, it has seen a plunge in popularity over the years.
The ANP’s supporters, analysts believe, are already unhappy with the governance of their party during the last five years.
According to DW's Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been badly affected by the "war on terror" and many people are against US drone strikes in the semi-governed northwestern tribal areas. In his opinion, many people held the ANP responsible for this situation. It was something that right-wing groups were benefiting from, he said.
Political experts like Malik Siraj Akbar, who is based in the US, are critical of Pakistan's response to the Taliban and the menace of terrorism. Akbar told DW in an interview that the main reason why liberal Pakistani parties faced a dilemma was that Pakistan had not officially owned the war on terror.
"Pakistan is not ideologically convinced that it is its war."
For this reason, counter-extremism and counter-terrorism experts in Pakistan say liberal parties have not been able to get the masses behind them in the fight against terror.
The ANP - like the PPP and the MQM - appear to be in an ideological dilemma. Not only the Pakistani state, but now the US, too, wants to talk to the Taliban and make its peace with the militants.
"So what is the future of the parties like the ANP and the PPP who have been supporting the onslaught on the Islamists?" asked Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a political activist in Karachi, who described why he believed the attacks on the ANP leaders had increased. "Politicians who want an offensive against the extremists are now a hindrance in the negotiations with Taliban. They are being removed from the scene," Ahmed told DW.
Islamic parties have always been demanding that the government must make peace with the Taliban.
Muhammad Shah Afridi, a conservative member of parliament from Khyber Agency - one of the semi-governed tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan - told DW that if the US and NATO could negotiate with the Taliban then Pakistan should do the same.
"War is not the solution to this conflict. We will have to talk (to the Taliban)," Afridi said.
The ANP leadership, too, has welcomed the US' initiative of "peace talks" with the Taliban, but experts believe it is not enough to convince the Taliban that the ANP is a "friend." There are many in the ranks of the ANP who still oppose the Taliban and want the party to run its election campaign on an anti-Taliban slogan.
And there is the dilemma: If the ANP goes all out against the Taliban, it is likely that the militants are going to bomb its rallies and kill its leaders, hence sabotaging its election campaign; and if it tries to appease the Taliban, it is going to lose its traditional support.