The dominant political party in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and main port, has suspended its public meetings ahead of the May 11 general election after a dozen of its supporters and a candidate were killed in three separate terrorist attacks over the past fortnight.
Friday’s decision by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is the latest sign that Taliban militants are succeeding in their efforts to disrupt an election that will mark the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another since Pakistan secured independence in 1947.
The MQM, a liberal party, called for a day of protest on Friday after a bomb fitted to a motorcycle killed six supporters outside one of its offices. Most businesses in Karachi, which has a population of about 21m, were shut, and public transport in parts of the city came to a halt.
“We have closed the MQM’s offices which are being targeted, but our campaign of going to our constituents from door to door is continuing,” said Babar Ghauri, a senior MQM leader. “We have decided to put public gatherings on hold. Right now, there is a major risk of MQM’s gatherings being attacked.”
The secular Awami National party, whose political strongholds include the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and parts of Karachi, has also put large public gatherings on hold after its leaders were attacked by Taliban bombs and gunmen.
Leaders of the country’s biggest parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan People’s party, have also curtailed campaigning because of safety fears. But Imran Khan, the former cricket star who founded the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) has mocked them for being afraid and said he will continue to speak at public gatherings.
The attacks have damped the hopes of pro-democracy activists, who in March celebrated the completion of the previous government’s five-year term in a country whose 66-year history has been marked by army coups and repeated military interference in politics.
On Thursday, Taliban militants in parts of Pakistan, including Karachi, distributed pamphlets urging the public to stay away from the elections. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the main umbrella organisation of the Taliban, was quoted by Dawn newspaper saying democracy was “un-Islamic” and the work of secular forces in Pakistan.
On the same day, however, the Pakistan Ulema Council, an umbrella group of Islamic scholars from different schools of thought, issued a 40-page fatwa telling Pakistanis it was their duty to vote. Tahir Ashrafi, who heads the council, said the fatwa “supports elections so that well-meaning people can go as public representatives to the parliament and reform Pakistan”.
He added: “We believe no one has the right to use force in place of the public’s right to freely choose their own future.”
Karachi has long been plagued by violence among political gangs and religious sects, but the city’s inhabitants say the situation has worsened.
“We have seen between four and five thousand people killed violently in Karachi in the past five years,” said Jameel Yusuf, a Karachi businessman and former head of a liaison committee between residents and police. “What you need now is to have elections so that a new representative government is put in place. Then there must be very decisive steps to tackle the situation.”
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