Saturday, February 16, 2008

Car Bomb Kills 27 Ahead of Pakistan Vote

A car bomb killed 27 people and wounded 93 on Saturday when it exploded in front of a (Pakistan People's Party) PPP election office in Parachinar, in northern Pakistan. The blast, reported the AFP, increased security fears on the last day of campaigning, just two days before the elections. According to CNN, "The office was used by PPP parliamentary candidate Riaz Hussein, according to party spokesman Nazir Dhoki. The explosion occurred late in the afternoon." Some of the dead were workers for the political party, and the Associated Press cited Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz who said "the suicide bomber drove into a crowd as they were preparing to eat." Although he did not speculate on who might have perpetrated the attack, the AP noted, "Monday's elections are taking place against a backdrop of rising Islamic militancy throughout Pakistan, and many candidates have been discouraged from holding large rallies. Security fears are highest in lawless tribal areas along the Afghan border."

An article in today's Dawn reported that the federal government has warned the provincial police chiefs to "step up security" following intelligence reports that suicide bombers may strike "in the next 72 hours" to sabotage the Feb. 18th elections. Dawn added, "Sources said that high-level talks were being held to review plans for the protection of sensitive installations and important political figures." Also interesting is that the government has indicated threats of attacks on some Arab diplomatic missions in the country, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

Despite today's bombing and security-related developments, much press coverage surrounding Monday's election have been devoted to the issue of "poll rigging." According to the aforementioned AFP piece, "Opposition groups have accused Musharraf's administration of rigging the polls to head off possible impeachment if a hostile parliament is voted in."

In response to this widespread concern that the polls will be manipulated, "Tens of thousands of Pakistani civilians have signed up as election monitors," reported the Wall Street Journal yesterday. The news agency added, Pakistan can ill afford the kind of problems that have sparked unrest following past contests. "Voters will be choosing members of Parliament. The party that winds up on top will nominate the next prime minister, who will share power with embattled President Pervez Musharraf. Voters will also select governments in the nation's tribal regions and four provinces, two of which have been run by a coalition of conservative Islamist parties [referring to NWFP and Balochistan." If Monday's elections are seen as credible, that could defuse national tensions and unrest and perhaps "nudge Pakistan's fractious political parties to form a more unified government," the WSJ assessed. The article cited some significant statistics based on the IRI poll released this past week - namely, if the main party that backs Musharraf, the PML-Q, wins the elections, 79% of Pakistani polled would feel the elections had been rigged. One can only imagine the riots that could follow if such a result occurred.

The President is obviously fully aware of these allegations and concerns and has pledged free and fair elections. According to the Daily Times editorial today, Musharraf told political parties, "The winner should not be arrogant and the loser should accept his defeat with grace." The Daily Times called the worries associated with the polls and the President's subsequent responses, "a complex psychology of action and reaction between those who are holding the election and those who are participating in them." The editors added, "The rigging fear is a genuine fear, not nursed by the political parties alone. The media and neutral observers in Pakistan have raised very convincing objections to the way the Election Commission has handled the electoral list. In fact a case against these apparent irregularities is in the Supreme Court, investing the whole issue with legal significance."

As someone who watches the current U.S. presidential race and the upcoming Pakistani elections with equal fascination, the differences in the political atmosphere stand in stark contrast to one another. Whereas U.S. voters' biggest complaint seems to revolve around super-delegates, Pakistanis are worried about rigged polls, security surrounding election stations, and whether a perceived rigged election would bring further unrest to a country already laden with overflowing tensions. I am not saying this is not expected of a developing nation recovering from years of conflict, corruption and ping-ponged authoritarian rule - I am merely highlighting the scale of our problems. Although the number of political parties participating in this election have dropped dramatically, there seems to be so much more international attention, so much more at stake, and so much more that could happen if the results are not to our liking.

Before I end today, I'd like to highlight another great piece by Khaled Ahmed in Pakistan's Friday Times. He wrote, "The new government will be a 'negotiating' government. It will negotiate with Al Qaeda and Taliban Tehreek in the Tribal Areas about the nature of the state...It will negotiate with the elements behind the insurrection in Balochistan on what the federal government will retain out of the powers mentioned in the Constitution...It will similarly have to negotiate with the sub-nationalisms gathering strength in the NWFP and Sindh..." In his opinion, new elections will be demanded soon enough after this new government "is shell-shocked by the challenges of governance it faces and loses its head." - Thoughts?

No comments: