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Opinion, Politics

Elections and violent conflict in Pakistan

Barring the 1970 election, which witnessed a brutal civil war in its aftermath, the 2013 poll remains one of the most violent in Pakistan’s history.


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Updated: May 7, 2018

Data analysis by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies reveals that a total of 148 terrorist attacks were reported across Pakistan between Jan 1 and May 15 2013 — most of them in the months of April and May — that targeted political leaders and workers, election candidates, offices and rallies, and polling stations. As many as 170 people were killed and another 743 injured in these attacks.

While the 2013 election might appear to be anomalous due to its association with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgency, violence is a recurring feature of Pakistani politics. Between 1988 and 2010 — the years for which compiled data is available through the International Growth Centre — researchers collated 27,555 incidents of political violence.

More specifically, election-related violence — which is a time-defined subset of political violence and includes riots, protests and counter-protests, assassinations, and violent attacks designed to shape electoral outcomes — constitute roughly four per cent of all political violence in the country. Statistically, this means that 1,100 conflict incidents took place across the six elections during the 1988-2010 period, at an average of 183 incidents per election. The total number of people killed as a result of election-related violence in this period is estimated to be 380.

As Pakistan heads towards another general election in approximately three months’ time, it is worth reviewing the conflict landscape to pinpoint potential sources of serious rupture. The success of military action in countering organised Islamist insurgencies likely means that the scale of violence seen in 2013 will not be matched. However, there remain plenty of potential drivers of electoral violence, which map on to both old and new societal fault lines. The three worth considering in detail include local factional conflict in competitive seats in Punjab; political gender-based violence across the country; and violence grounded in religious exclusion and social conflict driven by Barelvi and other Islamist reassertions.

The first of these, ie factional conflict and violence in Punjab, is a function of the competing tribal, kinship-based, or patronage-based groups that dominate electoral politics in most rural and peri-urban constituencies. This politics is often characterised by destabilising conflict, where the use of violence to settle disputes or intimidate opponents has long been considered kosher. Intimidation tactics and violence, often in connivance with local state officials, are frequently deployed at the community level to prevent or force recalibration of voting blocs and changes in electoral outcomes.

What makes this trend particularly salient in 2018 is the heightened sense of competition that will likely take place due to the consolidation of opposing powerful candidates in two (PML-N vs PTI, or PML-N vs independent) rather than three or four camps. In marginal seats, each and every vote bloc (dhara) is important, and violence has long been documented as a powerful way to either break up or collectivise a vote bank.

The second potential source of conflict, gender-based violence in politics, may emerge due to substantive changes made to the laws and regulations governing electoral activity. Academic literature on violence against women confirms that underlying power dynamics and the protection of elite male authority and male economic privilege is at the heart of gender-based conflict. Such patterns of conflict also influence the way women approach the political process, as citizens, voters, and candidates. As has been documented extensively, the gender gap of nearly 11 million voters exists due to a broad range of institutional and societal discriminatory factors.

Legal changes made through the Elections Act 2017 broaden the scope for guaranteeing women’s political participation as both voters and candidates. On the former, there are now safeguards in place to ensure a bare minimum level of voting by women in constituencies across the country; while on the latter, each party will have to field women on 5pc of the general seats it contests. Both of these are good first steps that parties need to build upon. More importantly, the opening up of these new spaces through legal changes carries the potential of triggering a patriarchal backlash over a perceived sense of loss of power and authority. This will have to be monitored with great attention, especially during the campaign phase.

Lastly, Barelvi reassertion, as exhibited through the mobilisation success of Khadim Rizvi and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, and the broader rise of new hardliners, as with the Jamaatud Dawa-linked Milli Muslim League, appears to have opened up new spaces for religious politics in the country.

This upsurge of Islamist hardliners has taken place in opposition to the government, and has had a resulting impact on the stability of the ruling party, and on the democratic process as a whole. It is expected that although these radical Islamist groups cannot win elections on their own, they are successful in influencing candidates, placing limits on political discourse, and redirecting policy and societal behaviour towards more fundamentalist causes. We can already see this in the form of heightened Islamist rhetoric being used by competing parties in different parts of the country, as well as the recent attempt by retired Capt Mohammad Safdar and other PML-N representatives to assert ideological purity through a National Assembly resolution.

The three potential sources of conflict listed in this piece constitute by no means a comprehensive assessment of the risks for election 2018. However, they can serve as important red flags for the Election Commission of Pakistan and the caretaker governments who will oversee the election process. Most of all, though the responsibility for preventing conflict rests with the parties who aspire to form the next government, and without whose commitment electoral violence will continue to be a feature of Pakistan’s political landscape.

(by Umair Javed)



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Dawn
About the Author: Dawn is Pakistan's oldest and most widely read English-language newspaper.

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