A traumatic interregnum
In Pakistan, the harshly criticised military is tacitly overseeing a silent coup
The cowardly assassination of two functionaries of the Awami National Party in Peshawar, in a suicide attack just a fortnight before the national elections, including Haroon Bilour, one of the top leaders of ANP, spreads a darkening canopy over Pakistan's polity. The three embraced martyrdom in their struggle against terrorists and feudal-military interests that are committed against the gradual opening of a transparent parliamentary democracy. The tragic incident that killed at least 19 and injured 65 – mostly in their twenties and one aged 12 - happened at Qissa Khwani when Bilour and others were proceeding towards the venue of an election meeting. His father, Bashir Ahmad Bilour, a former senior minister and ANP leader, embraced martyrdom similarly in December 2012. Haroon was contesting from the very constituency on which his father ran for the party. According to eyewitnesses, Haroon, the keynote speaker, received a warm welcome by ANP supporters.
This has diverted the curious attention of political analysts over the summons served by the Supreme Court on former President Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur to appear before the apex court in connection with the Rs 35 billion suspicious transactions in money laundering in Sind, although minister of interior Azam Khan denied the very existence of any such register of exit control list of presidents and chief executive officers of three banks allegedly involved therein.
ANP veteran Mian Iftikhar Hussain strongly condemned the dastardly act of terrorists. "It is a conspiracy to delay the upcoming general elections," he said, cautioning other parties that an attempt to derail even the restricted democratic order is afoot. No less strong was the reaction from Chief Election Commissioner Sardar Mohammad Raza, who termed it a "weakness of security institutions" to scuttle the elections. The provincial governments were ordered by the ECP to ensure fool-proof security to all candidates. In contrast, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan's reaction was ritualistic. "Sad to learn of Haroon Bilour and 2 other ANP workers deaths and strongly condemn the terrorist attack at the ANP corner mtg in Peshawar" — he tweeted. The incident happened right before the nose of the seat of power of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government, ruled by the PTI. The provincial government had the feel of a terrorised milieu.
In an emotional reaction, star cricketer Shahid Afridi tweeted: "Brave son of a Brave father... Martyred son of a martyred father. What a tragedy for Bilour Family. Heart bleeds for them & other victims. May Allah give them strength." Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, expressing his sorrow over the martyrdom of Haroon Bilour, stating, "The terror attack on pro-democracy individuals is a conspiracy" Pakistan Muslim League-Naas leader Shehbaz Sharif and ex-Chief Minister of Punjab, condemning "this barbaric act of terrorism" paid fulsome tribute to the Bilour family that "suffered the worst terrorist violence and rendered sacrifices for Pakistan". Basheer Bilour Shaheed was a brave leader who was martyred six years ago.
An atmosphere of terror is felt increasingly as the day of vox populi draws nigh, especially from a week back when a candidate of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, Malik Sherein and his six supporters were injured in a bomb blast in the southern Bannu district of the same province. Sherein's convoy was attacked when it was passing through the Takhti Khel area in the PK-89 constituency of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as a part of the party's election campaign. This took place a day after the National Counter Terrorism Authority warned that almost all leading politicians belonging to almost all mainstream political parties are facing serious security threats. On the hit list are Imran Khan, ANP chief Afsandyar Wali Khan, Qaumi Watan Party founder Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao and several PML-N biggies, as also K-P's former CMs Akram Durrani of the Fazlur Rehman faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and Ameer Haider Hoti of ANP.
A few days ago, AFP wired a news with a clear hint that a powerful section of the Pakistan military establishment is hyper-active against the electoral process. The shadow of the murky past of martial regimes is reflected in the abductions, censorship and financial ruin as journalists reveal in a traumatised state that they are under unprecedented pressure from authorities ahead of nationwide polls, sparking allegations that the military is overseeing a "silent coup". Furthermore, scribes refusing to toe the line are increasingly targeted while their employers are threatened with financial blowback, fearing widespread self-censorship. "We have never witnessed the censorship which we are facing today," according to Afzal Butt, president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Pakistan's largest broadcaster Geo TV was partially forced off the air for weeks this year until it reportedly cut a deal with the military to adjust its coverage, according to local and international media. Even Pakistan's oldest newspaper Dawn, founded by Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah is "threatened and coerced by state institutions" for carrying an interview with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in May as he hinted that the Pakistani militants were behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks killing 166 people – a revelation that unnerved the military honchos.
But the PTI chief takes the election as a now-or-never opportunity for the hot seat at the helm in Islamabad. He has assigned his close confidante Zulfi Bukhari to work round-the-clock for ensuring his victory from the national assembly constituency of NA-53 where 36 candidates are in the fray, including ex-PM and senior PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. This time the battle is between PML-N and PTI. The Time magazine's survey gives the former Test cricket captain a clear edge. No less meaningful is a cartoon with Nawaz Sharif taking a shot with Khan as the goalie in a popular editorial column by The Friday Times editor Najam Shetty. Whether the positions may be interchanged or who is to push the ball into the net is a dilemma.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)