ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A string of violent attacks at political rallies, killing nearly 160 people this past week, has the nation on edge about security for the upcoming national elections, with some political leaders accusing the Pakistani government of not doing enough to protect the electoral process.
On Saturday, bloody images of one of the attacks — a bombing on Friday at an election rally in southwestern Baluchistan that killed 132 people, including a provincial candidate, and injured 500 more — percolated through TV news channels and social media, harking back to the 2013 national elections, which were also marred by suicide bombings that killed scores of people.
The violence prompted the government to declare Sunday a national day of mourning, while the leader of one of the country’s three major parties — the Pakistan People’s Party — announced he would suspend campaign activities for two days out of respect for the victims’ families.
“What would they think of me holding rallies and chanting slogans?” said Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated during a 2007 election campaign rally. “Other political leaders may do that, but, sorry, I can’t do it.”
With tensions already high over the July 25 election, leading Pakistani newspapers and political commentators called on the nation’s military to beef up its counterterrorism efforts and for government security forces to do more to ensure a peaceful democratic transition in the nuclear-armed nation.
“Electioneering is a public activity requiring a guarantee of public safety,” the Dawn newspaper said in an editorial that urged the state to embark on several security measures, including providing candidates with government security. “It is a poor indication of the health of this election if on-ground campaigning is suppressed or forcibly suspended.”
The attacks seem geared toward thwarting the election, which pits former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N party against former cricket star Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Movement for control of the National Assembly in what could spell the downfall of one of the country’s premier family political dynasties.
But the targets varied.
In Baluchistan, near the border with Afghanistan, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for Friday’s suicide bomb attack at a rally held by the Baluchistan Awami Party, which is seen as pro-military. Nawabzada Siraj Raisani, a candidate for a provincial legislature seat in the Mastung district, was among those killed.
Earlier Friday, four people were killed in an attack in southern Pakistan, in the city of Bannu, near a rally held for Akram Khan Durrani, a leader in the conservative Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party that supports the Afghan Taliban.
Durrani, a candidate for the National Assembly, was uninjured. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
And, in Peshawar on Tuesday, 21 people died in a Pakistan Taliban suicide bomb attack at a rally held by the liberal Awami National Party for Haroon Bilour, a candidate for the provincial legislature. Bilour was among the dead.
Ayaz Amir, a former National Assembly member who is now a political analyst in Islamabad, said the government should restrict large political gatherings until after the election.
“During election campaigns when large public meetings and rallies are held, it’s very difficult to ensure security to everyone,” he said. “It’s easy for terrorists to strike, and it seems terrorists were waiting for the election campaign.”
Others called for a unified front against terrorist attacks amid the political turmoil that already exists over Sharif’s corruption case and his return home Friday to begin a 10-year sentence after he and his daughter Maryam Nawaz were found guilty of illegally hiding their money in London apartments and other offshore properties.
“In order to get rid of these remnants of terror, there is a need of cohesion between the government, the security agencies and also the political parties,” said Ali Zafar, minister of information for the caretaker government put into place after Sharif was stripped of his role as prime minister last year.
But that spirit of cooperation seemed unlikely Saturday after police in Lahore charged Sharif and others in his party with inciting violence, following skirmishes between security forces and his supporters during a rally held in that city the day Sharif’s plane arrived from London.
The ex-prime minister’s younger brother said the party will fight those charges and will attempt to have Sharif and his daughter released from prison, as they face another trial on separate corruption charges.
“We will opt for all legal options to defend Nawaz Sharif and his daughter,” said Shahbaz Sharif, the party’s president, calling on supporters to hold peaceful protests on behalf of his brother and niece.
Ijaz Khattak, a political analyst in Peshawar, said the military has been too distracted by the Sharif family scandal, at the expense of public security for others.
“Security arrangements aren’t enough, but the government is not focused on this issue,” he said. “The state has been busy countering the issue with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, and using all means to stop him.”
Moeed Yusuf, vice president of the Asia center at the United States Institute of Peace, said the attacks have undermined the conventional belief among Pakistan analysts that this year’s elections would be more secure than they were in 2013, especially after the army announced its plan to post 371,000 soldiers at voting stations on election day.
“Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the last attack, and so the security forces need to be far more vigilant and active,” Yusuf said. “They are spread thin. This makes it very difficult to do what is needed to thwart terrorist attacks between now and July 25.”
Olivo reported from Kabul. Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.