ISLAMABAD — A powerful bomb has ripped through an election rally in Pakistan, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens more. Taliban extremists have claimed responsibility. Militants have stepped up attacks on election-related events as the country prepares to hold national polls on May 11.
Local officials told reporters the deadly suicide attack occurred in the northwestern Kurram tribal district and it targeted a campaign rally of a religious party known as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F).
The bomb reportedly went off near the stage shortly after candidates finished their speeches and were leaving the gathering. One of the candidates was identified as Munir Orakzai, a former member of the national parliament. His party spokesman, Jan Achakzai, said the senior politician survived the blast.
“He is fine. He is slightly injured but thanks to God he is safe. I strongly condemn this incident,” Achakzai said.
Taliban claim responsibility
A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ahsanullah Ahsan, claimed responsibility while speaking to VOA from an undisclosed location. He said Orakzai was the target of the attack because of his past association with the country’s secular political parties.
This is not the first time leaders linked to the JUI-F party have come under attack in Pakistan. Militants are blamed for at least two failed assassination attempts against the party chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, because of his short-lived political alliance with the previous Pakistani government that was a coalition of mostly secular parties. Most election-related attacks have targeted these political parties, and the violence has killed more than 90 people since campaigning started in April for Saturday’s national vote.
Independent observers like Mudassir Rizvi of the Free and Fair Election Network, a non-governmental watchdog, say the rising attacks on candidates and political activists are threatening the integrity of the polls.
“One of the major impacts that we are foreseeing is going to be the low turnout, especially if attacks of such type take place in the morning of the election day that will adversely affect expectations of a higher turnout this time,” said Rizvi.
The upcoming election will be the first time Pakistan will see a transfer of power between democratically elected governments through the ballot box. The military has ruled the country through coups or through its supporters for half of Pakistan’s existence, preventing democracy from taking roots.