ISLAMABAD – Bomb blasts tore through two campaign events Tuesday in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 18 people, authorities said, as attacks ahead of Saturday’s national election continued against liberal politicians.
About 100 people have been killed since April in violence against candidates and party supporters, according to media tallies. Some experts say the election has turned out to be the bloodiest in the country’s history.
The bombings this week also have sent a message that militants will spare no one involved in the democratic process, which they condemn as a violation of Islamic tenets. Victims now include supporters of a prominent rightwing cleric and parliamentarian, Fazlur Rehman, whose party has sought favor with extremists over the years but also joined coalitions with secular parties.
Rallies for candidates under the banner of Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-F party were bombed Monday and Tuesday, with a collective toll of more than 30 dead and scores more wounded. The Pakistani Taliban denied responsibility for Tuesday’s blast in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and said Monday’s attack in the Kurram tribal region was not aimed at Rehman’s party at large, but at an old foe who had only recently joined it.
The militant group has inexorably ratcheted up its attacks on politicians over the weeks and is now warning the public to stay away from the polls or risk death.
“It’s obviously a new tactic,” said Peter Manikas at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. “It’s a different type of violence in trying to disrupt the election as a whole. It makes everything unsafe.”
The military says it will deploy 70,000 troops to protect polling stations, augmenting over 500,000 police and security personnel. “It’s pretty clear that this is the most violent election I have witnessed in 23 years,” Manikas said.
The Taliban began its spate of attacks mainly against the pro-U.S. Awami National Party, dominant in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders the tribal belt, and the secular Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the strongest force in the southern megalopolis of Karachi. Those parties had formed an alliance with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
“These elections are the bloodiest in Pakistan’s history, and they were expected to be,” said Ijaz Khattak, a professor at the University of Peshawar. “But people know that is the price one has to pay. Democracy is the only viable way out of the mess Pakistan is in.”