Quetta, Pakistan — A pair of bombings at the election offices of a political party and an independent candidate in southwest Pakistan killed at least 24 people and wounded more than two dozen others, officials said Wednesday. The blasts came one day before parliamentary elections are to be held across the country.
The first attack happened in Pashin, a district in Baluchistan province, said Jan Achakzai, the spokesperson for the provincial government. Officials said at least 14 people were killed in the attack and the wounded are being transported to a nearby hospital. Police said some of them were listed in critical condition.
Later Wednesday, another bombing at the election office of politician Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema Islam party in Qilla Saifullah town of Baluchistan killed at least 10 people, Acahkzai and local authorities said. CBS News’ Sami Yousafzai said the JUI party is seen as close to the Afghan Taliban, which retook power in the neighboring country in August 2021.
Attack comes despite tight election security
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing, which came despite the deployment of tens of thousands of police and paramilitary forces across Pakistan to ensure peace following a recent surge in militant attacks in the country, especially in Baluchistan.
Achakzai sought to reassure the public that peaceful elections would go ahead in Baluchistan on Thursday despite the attack.
“Tomorrow, the people of Baluchistan will come out, they will destroy the ambitions of terrorists,” he told reporters.
The outlawed Baluchistan Liberation Army has been behind multiple attacks on security forces in Baluchistan bordering Afghanistan and Iran. On Jan. 30, a separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army group attacked security facilities in Baluchistan’s Mach district, killing six people.
In recent years, Pakistan has struggled to rein in surging militancy, especially in the former stronghold of Pakistan Taliban. Militants have a presence in Baluchistan and have targeted civilians in recent years. The Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups also have a strong presence in the province.
“The tragic incidents in Baluchistan, targeting election candidates, highlight the challenges surrounding the electoral process. Such attacks not only endanger lives but also impact the democratic process,” Ajmal Wazir, a former media advisor toof the PTI party, told CBS News. “The indiscriminate killing of people at election rallies reflects the gravity of the situation.”
What’s at stake in Pakistan’s elections?
Pakistan’s 127 million voters get to elect a new parliament on Thursday. The elections are the 12th in the country’s 76-year history, which has been marred by economic crises, military takeovers and martial law, militancy, political upheavals and wars with India.
Forty-four political parties are vying for a share of the 266 seats that are up for grabs in the National Assembly, or the lower house of parliament, with an additional 70 seats reserved for women and minorities.
After the election, the new parliament chooses a prime minister. If no party wins an outright majority, then the one with the biggest share of assembly seats can form a coalition government.
Pakistani politics are dominated by men and three parties: the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
The top contenders, and why Imran Khan is missing
The top contender is PML-N and on its ballot are two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shehbaz Sharif.
Their ally the PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, a member of a political dynasty, has a power base in the country’s south. Though it’s unlikely to get enough votes to get him the premiership, he could still be part of a Sharif-led coalition government.
However, it is the absence from the ballot of the PTI’s founder, Khan, a cricket legend turned Islamist politician, that has been at the forefront of public discourse in Pakistan.
Though it’s become the norm for corruption allegations and court cases to dog prime ministers — many of Pakistan’s leaders have been arrested, disqualified or ousted from office — the intensity of the legal action against Khan is unprecedented.
Khan is in prison and with four criminal convictions so far, three of them handed down last week, he is barred from running in elections or holding public office. He’s been sentenced to three, 10, 14 and seven years, to be served concurrently, and has more than 150 other legal cases pending against him. His party says it’s not getting a fair chance to campaign.
The next government will have a long to-do list: fixing the economy, improving relations with the neighboring, Taliban-run Afghanistan, repairing crumbling infrastructure and resolving year-round power outages. Last but not least is containing religious and separatist militant groups.
Pakistan has been relying on bailouts to prop up its foreign exchange reserves and avoid default, with the International Monetary Fund and wealthy allies like China and Saudi Arabia financing the country to the tune of billions of dollars. The IMF, which last July approved a much-awaited $3 billion bailout, has warned of sustained high inflation this year, around 24%, and a rise in poverty levels.