Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 states that individuals who claim to belong to terrorist groups and create terror in the state must be arrested, detained, and subjected to the death penalty. Despite this law, terrorists remain able and free to form political parties, campaign in the streets, and compete in the elections. Even after committing crimes against humanity and being “banned” by the United States and Pakistan itself, these terrorists can register as candidates of the Legislative Assemblies. This piece argues that terrorist candidates are eroding Pakistan’s democracy by attacking its key tenets: elections and representation.
More Terrorists in the 2018 Elections
Surprisingly, terrorists and extremists participating in the elections are not new to Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder, and his Muslim League party were pro-Islam and extremist. His party’s success later prompted many terrorist and extremist organizations to participate in Pakistan politics. Berti (2013) states that terrorists are switching from outright violence to electoral participation to better capture the state. Pakistan’s parliamentary democracy makes this objective easy, as terrorists continue to seek positions in the National and Provincial Assemblies.
Compared to previous elections, the 2018 general elections saw an unprecedented number of terrorist candidates. Reports count more than 1,500 candidates fielded by the Milli Muslim League (MML), Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), etc. which are all umbrella parties of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. These terror parties are also led by “blacklisted” and “wanted” Sunni leaders and terrorists, with MML leader Hafiz Saeed having a $10 million bounty for crimes against humanity.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) initially refused to register these terrorist candidates, to no avail. With a few tweaks to their campaign posters and a quick rename of their parties, Saeed and other leaders were able to make the PEC approve of their candidacies (see Fig 1). Pakistan’s government and military also approve these terrorist candidates, with both institutions said to have “friendly relations” with terrorist parties and organizations.
These allegations seem to be true, as no authority stopped terror candidates from campaigning in broad daylight, intimidating other candidates, and inciting violence in the provinces. Days before the elections, the Pakistan Taliban or TTP, announced that they would target Asif Ali Zardari, his Pakistan People’s Party, and other “pro-liberal” candidates. The party also orchestrated the consecutive suicide bombings in the Balochistan province. Those killed were Awami National Party (ANP) leader Haroon Bilour, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) provincial candidate Siraj Raisani, Pakistan Movement of Justice’s Minister Ikramullah Gandapur, and more than 1,000 innocent civilians (Malik & Siddiqui, 2019).
Terrorist violence did not stop come election day. In the city of Quetta, a suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle at voters and exploded near the election polls. The attack killed 31 people and wounded 35 others who were waiting in line to vote. The other 3 provinces of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh, and Punjab also experienced election violence from grenade attacks, firing incidents, violent clashes, and more. Elections in Pakistan, therefore, are not free and fair. Rather, they are manipulated by terror powers willing to unleash extreme violence on the candidates and voters (Freedom House, 2021).
Terrorists Representing “The People”
If terrorist candidates are committing these horrible atrocities, why then are they still able to gather votes? Berti (2013) explains that these terrorists are using populist rhetoric and strategies to influence the voting public. Hadiz (2016) terms their political vehicle as “Islamic Populism”, which combines both Islam ideology and Müller’s (2016) anti-pluralist and anti-elitist criteria for populists. In this sense, terrorist candidates proclaim to represent the “Ummah” or the community of Muslim believers and protect them from their immoral elite government.
Pakistan’s terror parties like the MML, TLP, and more echo this statement and promise to “unite and protect the Muslim Ummah” from corrupt politicians, non-believers, and foreign interference. They also pledge to preserve Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, defend Palestine’s “two-state solution”, and help the Kashmiris get freedom. All of these issues are important to Pakistan’s Muslim and conservative voters, with some feeling that they are not addressed by the current government. Framed in this light, terrorist candidates may be the way to “give power back to the people” (Oztas, 2020).
Terrorist candidates also exploit the Muslim believers that they supposedly “empower” (Oztas, 2020). They do this by exacerbating political issues and the “Western threat”, inflaming voters’ feelings of hate and resentment for the “pro-Western” and “pro-Shia” government, and asking for votes in the name of Allah or Prophet Mohammad (Oztas, 2020; Cramer, 2016). All these strategies resemble the weaponized communication of “dangerous demagogues” (Mercieca, 2019). In using Islamist and populist narratives, terrorist candidates conduct, tolerate, and encourage societal violence to their political advantage.
Amid their campaigns, the TLP and TTP staged violent street protests to protect Islamic laws, killed police officers, and bombed Shia rallies and mosques. The parties held no remorse for their actions because they believe that Shia candidates and “non-believers” must be annihilated by the “True Believers” (see Fig 2). These parties also reiterate that “True Muslim Believers” need only vote for their candidates to honor the Prophet’s teachings. Representation by terrorist candidates then facilitates the societal embrace of their populist, Islamic, and radical narratives.
Terrorist attacks on democracy prove to be successful, with terror parties winning the elections. The Taliban-linked Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the majority of votes and 8 more terror parties followed suit (see Fig 3). Their victories present challenges for the future of Pakistan’s state, society, and democracy. Analysts fear that their victories would make Pakistan more terrorized and radicalized by terror organizations. If these organizations were to call the shots, Pakistan would see more terror groups in society, more terrorist recruitment, more terrorist violence, and more deaths.
Analysts also fear that their victories would serve as the pathway to mainstream terrorist parties in Pakistan. Terrorist candidates then would have greater legitimacy and greater chances of winning consecutive elections. Terrorist candidates would also have greater power to entrench Islamist militancy and erode democracy.
Fast forward to 2021, the current administration of Imran Khan and the PTI is a testament to all these fears. The Prime Minister is said to have been sympathetic to terrorists and even called slain al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden a “martyr” in a Parliamentary speech. The government also caved in to the street protests and the demands of the TLP and TTP, which may be a part of the mainstream in the next 2023 General Elections.
In conclusion, the rise and triumph of terrorist candidates in Pakistan reveal the cracks and openings of democracy. Elections and representation both became a tool of democracy’s attackers: authoritarians, populists, Vaishnav’s (2017) criminal candidates, and now terrorist candidates. Their electoral successes also risk further terrors and radical activities in Pakistan’s state, society, and democracy.
Current anti-terror laws, counter-terror measures, and rehabilitation strategies will not work against these terrorist candidates as they all have deep-seated ties to the government, military, and civil society (Feyyaz, 2015). Pakistan and other democracies then desperately need democratic defenders who will stand up to these terrorist candidates, overpower them in the next elections, and move to reverse their Islamic and extremist policies. Until these democratic defenders are unable to do so, Pakistan will continue to be a “hotspot” for terrorists and continue to be in a state of democratic decay.