Pakistani security officials inspect the site of a political bombing

A Pakistani security official inspects the site of a bomb blast outside the office of an independent candidate in Pishin District on February 7, 2024, on the eve of national elections.

(Photo: Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

Bombings Kill Dozens in Pakistan on Eve of Contentious Elections

As Pakistanis prepare to head to the polls with the country's most popular politician behind bars on dubious charges, human rights groups sounded the alarm on a wide range of election-related repression.

Dozens of Pakistanis were killed Wednesday in two bombings targeting political offices on the eve of highly contentious parliamentary elections from which the country's most popular leader—who is jailed on what critics say are politically motivated charges—is banned.

The blasts both occurred in the southwestern province of Balochistan, homeland of the nomadic Baloch people, who also inhabit a large swath of southeastern Iran and southern Afghanistan. Government officials said the first bombing, which targeted independent candidate Asfandyar Khan's office in the Pashin district, killed 18 people. A second blast approximately 80 miles away then killed at least 12 people at the Qilla Saifullah office of the Sunni fundamentalist Jamiat Ulema Islam party, which has close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Amnesty International said Wednesday that it is "deeply alarmed by the lethal and targeted violence on offices, residences, and election convoys of election candidates and political parties" in Pakistan.

As The Associated Pressreported:

Balochistan, a gas-rich province on the border with Afghanistan and Iran, has been the scene of an insurgency for more than two decades by Baloch nationalists who are seeking independence.

The nationalists typically attack security forces—not civilian or political targets in the province. The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army has been behind multiple attacks on security forces, including one on January 30 that killed six people.

The Pakistani Taliban, along with other militant groups, also have a strong presence in Balochistan and have targeted civilians in recent years, though the Pakistani Taliban pledged not to attack election rallies ahead of the vote.

Candidates representing 44 political parties are competing for 266 contested seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. Following elections, lawmakers elect the country's next prime minister. In the event that no party secures an outright majority, the one with the most assembly seats is tasked with forming a governing coalition.

Three main parties dominate Pakistani politics: the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the center-left Pakistan People's Party, and the populist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Khan, the country's most popular politician, is conspicuously absent from the elections. That's because he's languishing behind bars after being sentenced last month to 10 years imprisonment for leaking state secrets.

After being ousted last year in a parliamentary no-confidence vote, the Pakistani caretaker government dubiously charged Khan with corruption. Khan was charged with leaking state secrets after he exposed a diplomatic cable showing that the Biden administration encouraged the Pakistani government to remove Khan over his neutral stance regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In an opinion piece published last week by Common Dreams, U.S. economist Jeffrey D. Sachs asserted:

Evidence points strongly to U.S.-led regime change. The U.S. desired to bring down the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the charismatic, talented, and hugely popular leader in Pakistan, renowned both for his world-leading cricket mastery and for his common touch with the people. His popularity, independence, and enormous talents make him a prime target of the U.S., which frets about popular leaders who don't fall into line with U.S. policy.

Sachs argued that Khan's fatal "sin" was seeking friendship and cooperation with not only the United States but also its adversaries in Moscow and Beijing.

Khan and his wife Bushra Bibi were also sentenced to seven years in prison this month after a district court ruled their 2018 marriage was "un-Islamic."

Meanwhile, PTI candidates report widespread government repression.

"We have been harassed constantly by police, many of my workers arrested for trying to campaign, and I can't even go into my constituency," PTI candidate Arsalan Hafeez toldThe Guardian. "They have also registered many false cases against me. They are going after me like a criminal when all I am trying to do is freely fight an election."

Exacerbating matters, Pakistan is also suffering one of the worst economic crises in its history. Inflation remains at near-record levels. Food and fuel prices have soared, exacerbated by Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Nearly 40% of the population lives in poverty. Large swaths of the country have yet to recover from devastating climate-driven flooding in 2022 that displaced millions of people and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

Owing to these and other woes—including the Covid-19 pandemic, high commodity prices, and depleted foreign exchange reserves—Pakistan nearly defaulted on a $3 billion loan it secured last year from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Critics have decried the conditions of the bailout, arguing they will harm poor people the most.

"I can either get medicine for my diabetes or pay for my daughter to go to school or keep the lights on at my house," one 47-year-old rickshaw driver in Lahore recently told Human Rights Watch. "I can do only one of the three. The IMF should come and see how I am managing my life."

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