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Pakistan secular candidates campaign at their own risk

Masoom Shah, a member of Pakistan’s secular, anti-Taliban Awami National Party, was injured in a bombing while campaigning in Peshawar in April.
(Bilawal Arbab / / European Pressphoto Agency)

SHABQADAR, Pakistan — When Masoom Shah hits the campaign trail these days, he brings a 9-millimeter Glock pistol and a team of up to 50 bodyguards. Instead of appearing before large crowds, he meets small clusters of voters at guesthouses where everyone is frisked before they enter. He limits his speeches to 30 minutes and then quickly slips out of the room.

And at the end of the day, he returns home and prays.

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“I say to God, ‘Thank you, another peaceful day has passed,’” said Shah, 45, a member of Pakistan’s secular, anti-Taliban Awami National Party, or ANP, and a provincial assembly candidate in the country’s volatile northwest. “Each and every ANP candidate feels like this.”

For the liberal Awami National Party, which has a history of opposing extremism, the path to parliamentary and provincial assembly elections May 11 is seeded with bombs hidden in heaps of trash and teenage militants rigged with explosives under their tunics.

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At least 42 people have been killed and more than 140 injured in a wave of attacks on the ANP in recent weeks. The Pakistani Taliban has vowed to target the ANP and two other secular parties: President Asif Ali Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which for years has governed Karachi, the country’s largest city and its commercial capital.

The attacks have draped a pall of fear over what was supposed to be a momentous event: an election that marks the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another in a country with a history of military coups and political instability.

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Heightening the preelection tension, gunmen in Islamabad on Friday shot and killed a prominent prosecutor. Chaudhry Zulfikar had been investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007, and Pakistanis tied to terror attacks the following year in the Indian city of Mumbai in which 166 people died. Police said they had no suspects and didn’t know whether the killing was linked to either investigation.

Many observers worry that the preelection violence could skew ballot results. Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, warned that unless the government and its security forces “ensure that all parties can campaign freely without fear, the election may be severely compromised.”

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Militants have already tried to kill Shah once, detonating a roadside bomb on April 14 that embedded shrapnel in his head and face. The same day, another roadside bomb, a pressure cooker device like the ones used in the Boston Marathon attack, killed an ANP leader in northwestern Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

The deadliest attack occurred April 16, when a suicide bomber tried to assassinate Ghulam Bilour, a top ANP leader, at a small campaign gathering in the northwestern city of Peshawar. Bilour was unhurt, but the blast killed 16 people and injured 50.

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Leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, which for years has been waging war against Pakistan’s U.S.-allied government and military, have claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on ANP candidates, as well as a spate of bombings in Karachi directed at the other two secular parties.

The latest of the Karachi attacks occurred Saturday, when militants planted bombs that killed three people and injured 21 at a campaign meeting held by backers of the Pakistan People’s Party. That same day, two blasts near an office of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi killed two people and injured 25.

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ANP leaders say the violence is designed to benefit the country’s fundamentalist religious parties, some of which have long-standing ties with militant leaders.

“These attacks are being done by people who don’t want us to be in parliament or to form the next government,” said Haroon Bilour, whose father was killed in a Taliban-engineered suicide bombing in December and who narrowly escaped the suicide bombing meant to kill his uncle, Ghulam Bilour. “They want people of their choice to be in government.”

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A coalition of right-wing religious parties governed what is now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in the northwest between 2002 and 2008, before the ANP won provincial assembly elections.

The right-wing coalition no longer exists, but religious parties are again vying for seats in parliament and have been untouched by the preelection violence in recent weeks.

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The violence has dramatically transformed the dynamic of the campaign.

Parties not on the Taliban’s hit list, including those led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and cricket legend Imran Khan, have freely held massive rallies across the country. Both parties have espoused dialogue with militants.

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Bilawal Bhutto, the 24-year-old son of Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, now leads the Pakistan People’s Party campaign, but party officials worry he could suffer the same fate as his mother, who was assassinated during a campaign rally in Rawalpindi in 2007. So when Bilawal Bhutto kicked off his party’s campaign April 23, he did it through a video broadcast to the party’s provincial offices. Leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement last week said they were largely confining their campaign to a door-to-door effort.

The ANP’s campaign has been hit the hardest. Campaign rallies used to involve crowds of up to 500. Now the size is limited to about 80, and the venue must be vetted in advance or be a cul-de-sac with a single access point. Metal detectors are placed at every campaign meeting entrance. When candidates go door to door, they arrive unannounced, encircled by a cordon of bodyguards wielding AK-47 rifles.

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“This is a big disadvantage to our campaign,” Haroon Bilour said. “Other parties have an advantage because they can do any kind of procession or gathering anywhere. We can’t.”

The reason for limiting access was made clear by the attack on Haroon Bilour’s uncle as his SUV pulled up to a Peshawar guesthouse for a rally. Haroon Bilour was headed to the site, but stopped his car about 100 feet away to chat with a friend. The bomber emerged from a nearby milk shop and walked up to Ghulam Bilour’s car.

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“The blast was huge — it lifted my car up into the air,” said Ghulam Bilour. “There was smoke everywhere and people dying all over the place.” Haroon Bilour watched as frantic supporters pulled his uncle out of the car seconds before it burst into flames.

Shafqat Malik, northwestern Pakistan’s top bomb-disposal official, says campaign-related violence has turned the Peshawar area into a war zone. His team has been finding and defusing roadside bombs at a rate of two to three each day. “We are working on war footing,” he said.

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The bomb that nearly killed Masoom Shah was hidden in a roadside trash can. He had just been to one election rally and was on his way to another when the bomb exploded as his Land Cruiser drove past. He still campaigns, but he moves like hunted prey, taking with him as many as 30 guards in daytime and 50 at night. He refuses to don a bulletproof vest, however. Pashtuns greet each other with a hug, and if his backers realize he’s wearing a vest, “they’ll say, ‘He’s our leader and he’s scared,’ ” Shah said.

With campaign violence showing no signs of abating, many observers questioned whether the elections should be delayed, or whether the ANP should boycott them in protest. ANP leaders say that would be tantamount to handing Taliban militants an easy victory.

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“We will campaign,” Ghulam Bilour said. “If we die, we die.”

alex.rodriguez@latimes.com


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