Secular parties in Pakistan are calling on the government to do more to protect them ahead of key elections after the Taliban began acting on threats to systematically target their leaders and supporters.
The May 11 general elections could determine Islamabad's future course, with weakened secular parties fighting for control in parliament against increasingly powerful hard-liners and religious candidates.
The race is a close one. But secularists warn that the recent violence is succeeding in preventing them from reaching potential voters, and could ultimately cost them control of the government they have headed for the past five years.
The secular Awami National Party (ANP), which has a large Pashtun following in the country's restive northwest where many of the attacks have occurred, has absorbed the brunt of the violence.
At least 16 people died and 35 were injured in a suicide attack at an election campaign rally for the ANP in city of Peshawar on April 16.
In the past two weeks, four ANP candidates in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province have been injured and many supporters killed by bomb attacks for which the Taliban has claimed responsibility. Nationwide, more than 700 ANP members have been killed since the elections in 2008, when the party took a share of power in the coalition government in Islamabad.
The attacks recently prompted the party to write Pakistan's Election Commission requesting that more be done to ensure that the party can campaign freely. Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso last week ordered a tightening of security for all candidates in the elections.
But Afrasiab Khattak, president of the ANP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, told journalists on April 15 that the government had not directly responded to the party's request. This, he said, led the party to believe it is being pushed out of an election process that the authorities promised would be free and fair.
"The antidemocratic forces are afraid of the ANP's imminent success and have decided to stop us from campaigning through violence. Their aim is to scare people by shedding the blood of ANP supporters," Khattak said.
"This way they want to steal the election. By doing so they want to sabotage the true verdict of the people and want to impose their own will on them. This is their larger program."
Election Violence Spreads
In southern Pakistan, two other secular parties -- the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan People's Party -- are avoiding the large-scale rallies previous campaigns were noted for.
On April 11, a candidate of the MQM was killed in the southern city of Hyderabad. The Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for most of the attacks in the south.
And there are cases of violence against parties affiliated with the conservative opposition as well.
On April 16, a roadside bomb struck an election campaign convoy organized by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party in the southwestern Balochistan Province, where violence is often attributed to an ongoing separatist campaign. Four were killed in the attack and more than 20 wounded.
Khadim Hussain, an Islamabad-based political commentator, says the Pakistani Constitution requires that the caretaker government that is handed power during the campaign must ensure a level playing field for all political parties.
He says the future of democracy in the country is at stake. "If you want to avert disasters, the only way forward is that all political parties should have an equal opportunity to present themselves to the people," Hussain says. "The people should be trusted with freely choosing their representatives and their verdict must be accepted."
Pakistanis had high hopes for free and fair elections after the outgoing government became the first in the country's history to complete its five-year term and filled the Election Commission with leaders widely considered to be impartial.
Election Commission spokesman Khursheed Alam said the commission was working closely with the caretaker government and the security agencies to ensure free and fair elections. "Given the overall situation in Pakistan, there are threats and dangers," he said. "We are doing our best to prevent any untoward incidents by deploying the maximum numbers of security forces including the army, the Frontier Constabulary, the Rangers, and the police."
Nevertheless, many secular candidates in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the adjacent tribal areas, the southwestern Balochistan Province, and the southern seaport city of Karachi have stopped door-to-door campaigning.
ANP leader Khattak says that despite the risks, his party will not boycott the elections. He called on political rivals to forcefully condemn the recent violence. "Tomorrow, it might be your turn to face terrorism," he said. "Then there will be nobody to raise their voice for you."