9 May 2013

Pakistan elections: dangerous race to the finish

Pakistan’s general election on Saturday is meant to mark the first time a democratically elected government in the country has been succeeded by another. But it is a transition beset by violence.

The last official day of campaigning has been marred by the abduction of Ali Haider Gilani, the son of a former Pakistan prime minister, who was attacked by gunmen while canvassing in his home district in Multan.

It is reported that one of his aides died in a flurry of gunfire, and Haider was reportedly bleeding as he was dragged into a car and whisked away.

His brother, Ali Musa, has told reporters that if he is not found, they will not allow elections to go ahead in the region.

The abduction is the latest blow to the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party and to a democratic process that is faltering amid some of the bloodiest pre-election violence ever seen.

Wider fears

It is gradually shifting the spotlight from the three secular candidates back onto the Pakistan Taliban. Observers say the group has, through a campaign of sustained violence directed against the three main parties, become a political force with national influence for the first time.

And the fear is that there is more to come. Hundreds of thousands of troops are starting to deploy across the country’s 80,000 polling stations in a massive security operation to limit potential bloodshed on Saturday.

With some parties unable to hold large political gatherings, or even to canvass voters, questions have grown about whether they will accept the outcome of Saturday’s poll.

Reuters reported that the Pakistan Taliban’s leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, last week issued written instructions ordering militants to carry out suicide bombings across the country during polling on Saturday. “We don’t accept the system of infidels which is called democracy,” he said in the letter, dated 1 May.

The Gilani family said they had complained to police that they had received death threats from the Taliban but were not given adequate security.

Imran Khan: hospitalised but digitalised

Meanwhile the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan was recuperating in hospital after fracturing his head when he fell from a podium (see video above). The injury has kept him out of the last days of campaigning.

There is some hope though. Many of his supporters are young, middle-class voters that are digitally wired, and Mr Khan has cleverly maintained momentum through social media updates from his hospital bed, with a Skype session planned later today.

There are 40m young Pakistanis eligible to vote for the first time and officials of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Mr Khan’s party are eager to make gains and maintain pressure in the final hours.

Channel 4 News joined him on the campaign trail last year to which he drew parallels between his former cricketing life and politics, stating: “If you do not accept defeat, no one can defeat you.”

Pakistan human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar told Channel 4 News: “The fall has had two effects: it has lost Imran Khan two crucial days of campaigning; but it has also galvanised further support across the country and motivated people to come out and vote on Saturday despite the threats of terrorism.”

Saturday’s elections in numbers

* Polls open at 08:00 local time and close at 17:00
* 86,189,802 registered voters
* 5,000 are standing for 342-seat National Assembly, 272 are directly elected.
* 40m young Pakistanis eligible to vote for the first time
* More than 600,000 security and army personnel will be deployed to guard against possible attacks
* More than 73,000 polling stations – 20,000 of which are deemed a security risk