Fear of attack haunts Pakistan election campaign

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Pakistani politicians may be bitter rivals who exploit the tiniest chance to score points off one another, but one thing unites them as they campaign for May elections: fear of attack.

In a country awash with weapons, overstretched security forces, fractious tribes, Islamist militants and deadly political and ethnic rivalry, the specter of violence haunts politicians from left to right, conservative to reformist.

More than five years after her murder, the ghost of Benazir Bhutto hangs over the campaign. She was killed in a gun and suicide attack after an election rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007, and her assassins have never been convicted.

Her death catapulted her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to victory, on a wave of sympathy. But it was a powerful reminder of the dangers and, heading into the May 11 polls, Pakistan today is a far less secure country than five years ago.

Violence against the Shiite Muslim minority is at a record high. Religious intolerance is worse today than five years ago. The Taliban insurgency and a Baluch separatist insurgency in the southwest have only expanded.

The Pakistani Taliban have issued a direct threat against the three main parties of the outgoing government -- the PPP, the secular Awami National Party (ANP) in the northwest and MQM, the party that rules Karachi.

Bullet proof glass as standard

The 24-year-old PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Bhutto’s son, will make few public appearances and will address crowds by phone or video link “due to security and logistical” reasons, party spokesman Qamar Zaman Kaira told AFP.

“There are security concerns. He cannot travel everywhere,” he said.

For any self-respecting politician, a bullet-proof vehicle is de rigueur. Party offices are barricaded with barbed wire and concrete blocks. Bullet-proof glass on podiums is increasingly common.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif was applauded by tens of thousands at his inaugural rally Monday when he ordered the glass to be removed, but the entire stage was secured with barbed wire. Police commandos bristled with their AK-47s.

As former dictator Pervez Musharraf flew back at the weekend from more than four years in self-imposed exile, the Taliban said they had gathered a squad of suicide bombers to go after him.

Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming in 2007 was greeted by bomb attacks that killed around 140 people in the deadliest single terror attack on Pakistani soil.

Musharraf’s party scrapped a public rally in downtown Karachi. He delivered a short address at the airport and then was whisked away in a high-speed convoy to one of the most heavily guarded hotels in the country.

He is being protected around the clock by a bevy of retired army commandos and intelligence agents, along with army and police guards.

Populist cleric Tahir-ul Qadri elevated personal protection to a new level in January, when he conducted a three-day rally in Islamabad entirely from inside a bullet-proof trailer featuring reinforced glass.

Taliban threat

Security officials say the Taliban pose a greater threat than ever to populated areas around the northwestern city of Peshawar and to parts of Karachi, Pakistan’s financial capital on the Arabian Sea.

The ANP is on the defensive. Suicide and bomb attacks regularly target its rallies and politicians. In December, the Taliban assassinated one of its leaders, Bashir Bilour.

“If one party is targeted and cannot campaign freely, then how are these elections going to be fair and transparent? What will be the credibility of such elections both domestically and globally?” asked ANP Senator Zahid Khan.

MQM central leader Wasay Jalil said he feared security would impact the campaign and the results, particularly if turnout is affected.

Even cricket legend Imran Khan, who has been criticized as “Taliban Khan” for allegedly being soft on militants, now travels in a bullet-proof vehicle.

At a rally by Khan in Lahore last weekend, authorities shut down the wireless network, given that bombs can be detonated by mobile phone.

“It is a difficult situation. We have to take part in elections and also take care of our security,” his party spokesman Shafqat Mehmood told AFP.

“It is not easy... but that’s how it is,” he said.

Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party, which has also been criticized for not taking a tougher stand on militancy, accused the PPP of inflaming the situation by “backing out from commitments with the Taliban time and again.”

PML-N spokesman Siddiqul Farooq told AFP that “overall” it would be peaceful and argued that “a few isolated incidents” would not derail the polls.