Courting votes, and death, in Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

Riding in his chauffeured Land Cruiser, Babar Awan is on a mission many consider almost suicidal: He's a politician stumping on one of the world's deadliest campaign trails.

Weeks before the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, the veteran lawmaker is canvassing in this northern Pakistani town where goats wander the streets and residents remain fiercely loyal to President Pervez Musharraf.

Awan knows he's in enemy territory. In late December, his party's leader, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated after an open-air election rally in Rawalpindi, another Musharraf stronghold not far away. Awan is nervous, and he has brought armed guards.

This is Pakistan, a perilous realm of suicide bombings and social unrest where politicians are targets. It's an atmosphere of fear many blame on Musharraf, a former army general who has close ties to Pakistan's powerful military, a force known here simply as "the establishment."

Bhutto's allies suspect government involvement in her killing. Pakistani officials blame Taliban extremists based in border areas near Afghanistan.

Since the attack, Musharraf has banned large rallies, saying he wants to protect candidates. But many politicians have ignored the law -- because, they say, Pakistanis demand it.

Voters here expect to see their politicians in person, waving from limousines and giving fiery speeches as onlookers snap photos with cellphones.

"Before you vote for somebody, you must shake their hand and look closely at their face," said resident Masroor Ghani as he arrived at the Lalamusa rally. "How else can you judge them?"

But as Bhutto did before her death, opposition candidates such as Awan say Musharraf has refused to provide them adequate protection, forcing them to rely on private security and hope for the best.

Awan, a dark-eyed lawyer with a pencil mustache, enters a walled park flanked by a dozen security guards. At the gate, he brushes past a few government-assigned soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. They look away, as if to show disdain for their assignment of safeguarding the president's political rivals.

The tension is palpable. Men with woolen scarves around their shoulders flinch at the blast of a car horn. Slipping through the all-male crowd at this political rally, an event where women typically are not welcome, Awan tries to appear unruffled.

Some say Awan could succeed Bhutto to lead the Pakistan People's Party as its candidate for prime minister if it wins enough seats to try to form a government.

Awan, 54, says that if asked, he would accept the challenge. He'd do it for the slain Bhutto, an old friend. Such risks are now part of the political landscape, he says.

"I know I could be killed," he said. "Being a politician in Pakistan today is like sitting on top of a powder keg."

For many politicians, menace comes via bomb threats and text messages warning that they could be kidnapped or killed at any time.

In the southeastern province of Sindh, opposition candidates have been jailed, sending others into hiding, officials say. One candidate in the east-central province of Punjab was ambushed a few years ago. Shot in the face, he has a plastic jaw. But this year he's running for office again.

Just this week in Karachi, the country's largest city and the capital of Sindh, gunmen killed a senior official of the Awami National Party, a secular group representing Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun minority. Days earlier, a man on a motorcycle sprayed gunfire at a rally of about 100 supporters of the Pakistan People's Party, wounding one person.

Even politicians allied with Musharraf are fearful. Former Cabinet minister Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a National Assembly candidate from Rawalpindi, said political rallies nonetheless are a fact of life.

"If I'm too afraid to campaign but my opponent is out there meeting the people, what kind of message does that send?" he said.

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Not even Pakistan's president is immune from attack.

Since he seized power in 1999 in a military coup, Musharraf has escaped at least four assassination bids, all believed masterminded by Islamic militants.

Two of the attempts, in the form of bombs aimed at his convoy, took place 11 days apart, in December 2003. In October 2006 a bomb went off in a park near his residence. Last year, shots were fired at his plane as it took off from an air base.

In the murky world of Pakistani politics, experts say, attacks on public figures could come from tribal warlords, Islamic militants, Taliban extremists -- or state security forces.

Musharraf allies say they are targeted by religious extremists who oppose Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in Washington's declared "war on terror." Opposition candidates say they face attacks not only from militants looking to cause chaos, but from elements within the government.

Pakistani officials blame Bhutto's killing on Baitullah Mahsud, a tribal leader in northwest Pakistan with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Mahsud has denied involvement.

Experts say this election is the nation's most perilous in years, although there are no statistics kept of campaign-related violence.

"Pakistan is very, very dangerous now for politicians," said Aasiya Riaz, joint director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. "Before an election, you expect to see action. But it's eerily quiet. Nobody knows where the bullet is coming from. Or when."

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Benazir Bhutto knew there were people out to get her.

On her return from exile in October to wage a campaign against Musharraf, she escaped unharmed after a bomb went off nearby during a homecoming procession in Karachi, killing 140 of her supporters. She knew more attacks were coming.

In an essay published in the Wall Street Journal after the October attack, Bhutto wrote that running for office in Pakistan posed a terrible choice.

"If we don't campaign, the terrorists have won and democracy is set back further," she argued. "If we do campaign, we risk violence. It is an extraordinary dilemma."

She had considered "virtual mass rallies," she wrote, but knew that Pakistanis required her to be out on the trail.

"They expect mass rallies and caravans, and to hear directly from their leaders through bullhorns and loud speakers," she wrote in the Journal. "Under normal conditions it is challenging. Under the terrorist threat, it is extraordinarily difficult."

Experts say new restrictions on the media have left politicians little choice but to hit the streets. "The stations where people listen for their political discourse are shut down," said C. Christine Fair, a Rand Corp. political analyst who specializes in South Asia.

"The press is gagged. The only way to reach voters before the elections is through the rallies, which makes politicians vulnerable."

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On a rainy day, the soldiers guarding Ahmed's headquarters in downtown Rawalpindi shiver before a campfire. One leans against a concrete wall erected after Bhutto's death.

Inside, Ahmed, who is with Musharraf's Pakistan Muslim League-Q faction, complains that he feels trapped inside his bunker. His campaign once advertised his public appearances. Not any more.

The former federal minister for information, famous for bombastic speeches and affairs with Pakistani film stars, now invites political contacts to visit him in an ornate political center with arabesque towers. His public appearances are unannounced and unscripted, to avoid creating patterns that could make him vulnerable to attack.

When he ventures out, he fears traffic jams, where "I can be cornered," he says. And in Islamabad, the national capital, one day, his cellphone rang with a taunting message.

"The caller said I was lucky I had crossed this street unharmed," he said. "He wanted me to know he knew where I was."

At 54, after numerous campaigns, Ahmed says he may step down from public life after this election.

Still, he doesn't blame Bhutto for standing through her vehicle's sunroof on the day she was killed. "You can't sit inside and wave -- people won't allow it," he said.

"You have to open the door and open the window. Whatever happens, will happen."

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Standing before an oversized poster of the slain Bhutto, Babar Awan works the crowd in Lalamusa.

"Pakistan has no future except for democracy. Do you reject Musharraf and his dark forces of dictatorship?" he asks.

"Yes," some men roar, thrusting fists into the air.

"Will you fight for democracy?"

"Yes!"

The way to avenge Bhutto's death, he urges, is to support her Pakistan People's Party. The name Bhutto defines all Pakistanis, Awan shouts, not just a family.

The crowd breaks into a chant. "Bhutto is alive!" the men shout, rising to their feet. "Bhutto is alive!"

Far back in the throng, supporter Ansar Shahwan trembles: He fears for Awan's life. "I am counting the name of Allah on my fingers," said Shahwan, dressed in the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez, a tunic and loose pants.

"Please save this man. He has stood up to lead us. But I am afraid now they are going to take him away from us."

After his speech, Awan is swallowed by the crowd, then makes his way toward the black Land Cruiser. The soldiers stand on the sidelines, leaving responsibility for Awan's safety to the private guards he calls "my boys."

He stands atop the vehicle's running board, then climbs inside, people reaching for him through the open window. The engine starts.

And then he is gone.

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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