Pakistan’s violent campaign comes to end

More than 600,000 polling staff and 70,000 army and security forces personnel deployed ahead of Saturday’s vote.

The election campaign in Pakistan has been a raucous mix of violence and celebration – it is a story told in bullets and ballots, in festive song at impromptu street corner meetings, and in tears at hospitals after gun or bomb attacks.

And, just like that, at the stroke of midnight on Thursday night, it was all over.

With campaigning now officially ended, the country now waits anxiously for polls to open on Friday morning for a general election that will see more than 15,000 candidates competing for 849 directly elected seats in the provincial and national legislatures.

The scale of the polls will be massive, with a total of 69,801 polling stations being operated across the country by a small city’s worth – 644,970, to be exact – of polling staff. In addition, more than 70,000 army troops and security forces personnel will be deployed across the country to ensure security, with tens of thousands of police also on alert.

As all major political parties made a final push for the vote on Thursday night, perhaps the most impressive final display of pomp came from Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which held a rally of tens of thousands at Islamabad’s D-intersection, just outside parliament.

Addressing the assembled crowds via videolink from his hospital bed, Khan promised to usher in a “new Pakistan”, delivering his stump speech promises of wiping out corruption, tackling the country’s acute electricity crisis and changing the way that power is exercised in the country.

In Lahore, meanwhile, Nawaz Sharif, the head of his faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), addressed his own crowd of thousands in Lahore’s Samanabad area.

Sharif, whose party is considered by many to be the frontrunner in these polls, promised that he would form a government on the day after polling day.

His campaign has been built on the back of the party’s governance record in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, over the last five years, and he promised to bring the same “prosperity” that Punjab has seen to the rest of Pakistan.

Finally, there is the incumbent Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), whose election campaign has been crippled by a combination of threats and attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and widespread anti-incumbency sentiment.

Speaking to a crowd of thousands near Islamabad via videolink, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who himself is not in the country due to security concerns, criticised the party’s opponents as remnants of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s.

He urged voters to remember the “sacrifices” of his mother, Benazir Bhutto (who was killed at an election rally in 2007) and grandfather, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (who was executed in 1979 during the military rule).

Of blood and ballots

Appeals to correct historic wrongs, nationalist rhetoric, and ambitious promises aside, however, there has been another side to this election campaign.

The PPP, the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) and the Awami National Party (ANP) have borne the brunt of what has been the bloodiest election season ever seen in Pakistan.

More than 117 people –including at least two candidates – have been killed and scores more wounded in pre-poll violence since campaigning began in late March.

The violence has been multi-layered – there are the attacks carried out by the TTP against the country’s secular parties, but there have also been several instances of violence between rival parties’ candidates in a country where local politics in rural areas remains heavily dominated by kinship and tribal networks.

In addition, armed separatists in Balochistan province have carried out a sustained campaign against these polls, which they consider to be illegitimate.

On Thursday, Ali Haider Gilani, the son of former Prime Minister and leading PPP member Yousuf Raza Gilani, was kidnapped during a campaign rally in the southern Punjab city of Multan.

“There is a war going on between pro- and anti-Taliban forces in this country. They have captured the son of our leader . . . they are taking away MNA candidates,” Rehman Malik, the country’s former interior minister and a PPP leader, told Al Jazeera following the incident.

“So is this a fair election? They can blow up bombs everywhere, carry out gun attacks. Are these elections or selections of people who they [the Taliban] prefer?”

One person was killed in the attack on Gilani’s rally. Elsewhere on Thursday, three people were killed by Baloch separatists in attacks on the PML-N in Balochistan, and a man was killed in an attack on a candidate’s political office in the South Waziristan tribal area.

On Friday morning, an attack on a PPP election office in Quetta injured five people.

Political campaigning, then, may have ended, but for the country’s separatists and Taliban fighters, there appears to be no deadline to their campaign against the state.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

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