Violence against liberal parties has put a question mark on the credibility of Pakistani elections. The liberal PPP, the ANP, and the MQM are unable to campaign due to the consistent Taliban attacks.
"We have to fight the mindset that is hampering the nation's progress. We have to defeat the ones who whip women, bomb mosques and deprive girls like Malala Yousufzai of education," Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, head of Pakistan's largest political party, the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP), recently told his party's supporters in a video message. Bhutto-Zardari is unable to come to Pakistan and campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections due to security risks.
The PPP, the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) ruled the country for the last five tumultuous years. But in the run-up to the May 11 parliamentary elections, the parties have not been able to hold public rallies due to attacks on their leaders and officials by the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The Taliban have named the ANP, the PPP and the MQM as its targets because of their secular credentials
The Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency in Pakistan for many years to enforce the Islamic law in the country. They also demand that the government sever ties with the United States, which they blame for illegally occupying Afghanistan.
After a failed deal with the Taliban in 2009, the former ruling coalition launched several military operations against the Taliban in the country's northwestern areas, which border Afghanistan. But the operations were not enough to defeat the Taliban or reduce the violence.
Due to the inability to hold public rallies, the PPP, the ANP and the MQM have been forced to campaign for elections through advertisements, social media messages and TV talk shows, questioning the credibility of elections.
The ANP says the Islamist militants have killed more than 700 of its workers and leaders. But it says it won't resort to violence in response.
“Non-violence is our weapon against terrorism," said ANP secretary-general Ehsan Wyne. "If the Taliban accept the Pakistani government's writ and the country's constitution, and also endorse democracy as a valid system, we are ready to talk to them.”
The Taliban have rejected these conditions.
The MQM, which enjoys support in the southwestern Sindh province, particularly in Pakistan's financial hub Karachi, has had to shut its election camps following attacks by the Taliban. The MQM claims that the terrorists have killed 25 of their activists and an election candidate in the last few days.
Soft on the Taliban
By comparison, center-right parties such as former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) have been spared by the Taliban. The two parties want to engage with the Taliban unconditionally.
“The policies that have embroiled us in terrorism should be changed. And, of course, dialogue is necessary to understand each other's stance and remove misconceptions about each other,” said right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami's official Farid Paracha.
Former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan also wants Pakistan to change its strategy toward the Taliban.
“How long is the army going to bomb its own people and how long will this go on?" Khan questioned. "The hope for Pakistan lies in a genuinely democratic and sovereign government, which can talk to the Taliban.”
Political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi believes the PML-N and the PTI condemn terrorism but don't say anything against the militant organizations. “They don't want to lose their right-wing vote by doing so,” Rizvi told DW.
Winners may not be choosers
Pakistan's political parties are clearly divided on the issue of terrorism, which the international observers believe is a worrying sign.
“The different approaches that parties take have an impact on elections and also on the election campaign," said Michael Gahler, head of the European Union Election Observation Mission. "Terrorism, too, is an issue which will have an impact on elections and, therefore, it will be considered when we publish our preliminary report.”
Rizvi, however, said the winners of the elections may not be choosers in their approach to violence.
“Even if a party which is soft on the Taliban comes to power, it will not be able to wrap up the military operations against the militants altogether. Whoever comes to power, the military operation and talks would go together,” Rizvi said.