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Pakistan election: amid the chaos, where does the military stand?

Commentary: Taliban bombings are targeting secular and democratic institutions.
Pakistan election military 2013 05 07Enlarge
Supporters of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) at an election campaign rally in Lahore on May 6, 2013. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As the May 11 Pakistani election draws close, the Taliban has stepped up its campaign of bombings against secular, left-leaning parties, the parties accuse each other of intimidation and many are asking, where is the military?

The Pakistani military is the country's most stable institution. Pakistan has spent more than half its existence under military rule. In fact, in its 66-year history, the government cobbled together under President Asif Ali Zardari's leadership has been the only elected one to complete a full term in office.

The upcoming election would be the first time that power is passed on via the ballot box. However, this process is under threat from religious hardliners.

"The problem is that the elections are occurring in a context of ongoing insurgency, and the Pakistani Taliban are playing favorites, killing or intimidating members of secular and left-leaning parties, while giving apparently free reign to right-leaning and Islamist parties. Unless this trend is stopped, it may have an impact on the integrity of the election results," says Ahmed Humayun, a regional analyst and fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington.

In recent weeks, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP a.k.a. Pakistani Taliban) has made several statements denouncing secular parties that have strong support in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunwa province.

In a video, Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud stated, "We are not in favor of democracy. Democracy is for Jews and Christians."

So far, the Taliban have been very selective about which parties they attack. In December 2012, Dawn newspaper in Pakistan reported that the TTP specifically said it would target the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) because of those parties' enmity towards the Taliban.

Meanwhile, some parties have escaped Taliban attacks. For example, it seems that the TTPs stated distaste for democracy does not extend to the right-leaning Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that holds sway over the populous Punjab province.

As the election nears, the Taliban has stepped up its bombing campaign. Scores have died in election-related attacks since early April. Most, but not all, of these attacks have been carried out by the Taliban against what they referred to as the "secular pro-West" parties.

President Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has been included on the list of secular parties that the Taliban has targeted. But the PPP has avoided the massive body count of the MQM and the ANP by scaling back its campaigning efforts.

While members and supporters of MQM, ANP and PPP have been vocal about the attacks, parties polling well in Punjab remain silent about Taliban intimidation.

The PML-N has always been conservative. Similarly, the recently ascendant Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) led by cricket superstar, Imran Khan, has suddenly adopted a rightward slant, infusing religiosity into its ethos.

Rallies held by these parties have largely escaped Taliban attacks. Recently, though, the screenshot of a PTI tweet went viral on social media. In it, a PTI operative claims that one of their camps in Karachi was forcefully shut down by "MQM militants."

Through all this electoral violence and arm-twisting, the military remains aloof. It's erstwhile leader, ex-President Pervez Musharraf, is under house arrest, facing multiple charges, even possibly one of treason for subverting the constitution.

Many in the military leadership are appalled by this. Some senior members complained about the treatment of the armed forces in the press and public discourse to the Financial Times.

“The feeling is that while middle-ranking officers are fighting on the front lines, the institution is getting attacked,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chair of the Senate Defense Committee.

The military has reason to feel unloved. The civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari has tried repeatedly to curb the power of the military. It even attempted to bring the Inter Services Intelligence spy agency under civilian control. These ploys were largely unsuccessful, but they helped create a sense that, for the first time, the military could be questioned.

Analysts, such as Georgetown University's Christine Fair, assert that the rise of Imran Khan in Punjab owes much to army politicking.

It is in the military's favor that Khan's PTI now stands as the most sizable regional threat to the PML-N. After all, it was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N who first tried to oust and embarrass then-Chief of Army Staff Pervez Mushrraf.

Most forecasts predict an election result that would produce a compromise coalition. Many fear for the safety of voters and voting areas.

The caretaker government appears to be confident. Current Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has reassured voters that the election will take place on May 11 as planned, and that the military has a plan to ensure safety.

But in the long term, as far the military is concerned, a shaky government, resulting from a hung parliament may be the best option. Such weak government would make the military to look stable and dependable. And in the end, the Taliban's heinous campaign may end up playing in the military's favor.

Mahvish Khan Lynn is a freelance writer in Washington. She was born in Pakistan, where she lived through her teenage years.

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