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Paramilitary soldiers arrive to secure the area after a clash between supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in Karachi on May 8.   © Reuters

The numbers behind Pakistan's 'bloody' election

Despite deadly Mastung attack, the 2018 campaign has been markedly less violent

BEN HEUBL, Data Journalist | South Asia

LONDON -- Former cricket star Imran Khan emerged victorious in Pakistan's general election on July 25, after a campaign that, according to several media organizations, has been overshadowed by violence and unrest.

While this year's poll has indeed been marred by numerous incidents, most notably deadly attacks in Mastung and Quetta in Balochistan province, the scale of the violence has been markedly smaller than it was in the run-up to the last general election in 2013.

Furthermore, analysis of incidents during the five months prior to both votes shows that there has been a clear shift in terms of the perpetrators of the violence.

The data, compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, shows that ahead of the 2013 election, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan was the single entity behind the largest number of fatalities. The group was responsible for attacks that led to 41 deaths in just 11 days before people cast their ballots.

In the final month before polling day this year, the TTP claimed responsibility for incidents that led to just four fatalities. Islamic State group, meanwhile, killed 149 in a single strike in Mastung on July 13.

One important point to note, however, is that the elections five years ago took place against a backdrop of widespread unrest in the country, and a number of the fatalities recorded were not directly related to the campaign.

In addition to fewer fatalities, there has been a decline in the numbers of armed political party supporters involved in protests.

"The lack of any real TTP violence is notable, as they were the main source of violence in 2013," said Roudabeh Kishi, research director at ACLED. "Overall, I think that the involvement of IS is probably one of the big things to note during this election."

The Pakistani security forces' counter-insurgency operations targeting the TPP have been highly successful, according to a research paper written by Anatol Lieven of Georgetown University.

Limiting the group's ability to commit attacks has been pivotal to a more secure election this year, said Adnan Naseemullah, lecturer on South Asia and International Relations at King's College London. But this does not mean that the group's members ceased to pose a threat.

"The armed groups and actors are moving into other organizations. Some of them are moving to ISIS. Others are joining sectarian organizations or targeting religious minorities or minority sects. Others, quite significantly so, move to Syria to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq."

There are also clear differences in the nature of the campaigns waged by the different groups. In 2013, the TTP specifically targeted the sitting government and certain other parties, explained Naseemullah.

At the time, the group released video messages warning people to stay away from rallies held by the Pakistan Peoples Party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Awami National Party.

This year, Naseemullah argues, the violence is geared less toward swaying voters and has been aimed at causing general disruption. Political players, on the other hand, have been using different measures to affect the outcome. "In 2018, the strategy to influence the election has much more to do with deregistration, delegitimation of political party leaders, essentially using the judiciary."

The suicide bombing in Mastung targeted at an ANP rally, and party candidate Siraj Raisani was among those killed.

The incident was one of the most deadly single terror attacks in the country in the past eight years and resulted in a sizable jump to the number of fatalities during the 2018 election campaign. However, it should be looked at as an isolated event, given the overall numbers, according to Naseemullah.

The scale of the Mastung attack is one of the main reasons that the media has portrayed this election campaign as a violent one, but that fails to consider the full spectrum of events, in his view.

"That violence did not play a huge role is correct, except for that one big event," he said.

Datawatch is a series jointly produced by the Nikkei Asian Review and FT Confidential Research.

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