PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Mian Hussain is fighting for his political life from a deserted party headquarters, where two telephones sit silently beside him and the footsteps of a tea boy echo down the corridor.
One of Pakistan’s most high-profile anti-Taliban politicians, Hussain hasn’t been to a single public event since campaigning for the May 11 election kicked off. A fiery orator who once electrified big rallies, he now makes short speeches by telephone to small huddles of supporters meeting in secret.
For the spokesman of the Awami National Party (ANP), it’s just too dangerous to go out.
Since April, the Pakistani Taliban have killed more than 70 people in attacks targeting three major political parties, preventing many of their most prominent candidates from openly campaigning.
Hussain worries the Taliban want to rig the elections in favor of parties that will take a softer line with their determination to stamp a radical brand of Islam on the country.
He says that is why the Taliban are targeting the ruling coalition that backed military operations against them - Hussain’s ANP, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), whose offices have been repeatedly bombed.
The ANP has borne the brunt of the attacks because it is staunchly opposed to the Taliban. As a nationalist party, it competes with the militants for the support of ethnic minority Pashtun people along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The PPP and the MQM see themselves as liberal parties, long opposed to the influence of conservative religious forces and Islamist militancy.
The Taliban say they are targeting “secular” parties and that elections only “serve the interests of infidels and enemies of Islam”.
However, they have mostly not attacked right-wing religious parties that have joined the election race, or former cricketer Imran Khan’s party, which advocates shooting down U.S. drones and withdrawing the Pakistani military from insurgency-infested Pashtun areas along the Afghan border.
A blast at a rally organized by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) religious party on Monday killed 26 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility but said their quarrel was not with the party but with the candidate who the rally was for, who they said had betrayed Arab fighters to U.S. agents.
Another blast at a JUI rally near the Afghan border killed four people on Tuesday, said a party official. It was not clear who was responsible.
The Taliban have not attacked the main opposition party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which has courted support from groups accused of supporting sectarian attacks across the country.
“It’s pre-poll rigging,” Hussain says bitterly. The Taliban killed his only son three years ago, just before his wedding. The next day, militants attacked Hussain’s home, killing seven.
“They will either have to elect the terrorists or elect those who oppose the terrorists,” he said, the studious face of his dead son staring up from campaign posters on a nearby table.
But many voters do not see the contest simply as one that pits pro- and anti-Taliban parties against each other.
Insecurity worries them, but so does the sluggish economy, endemic corruption and power shortages that have cost millions of jobs over the five years of the last government. Many say it is that legacy, and not the Taliban threat, that makes them inclined to vote for a new guard in Islamabad.
The main opposition party is led by two-times prime minister Sharif. It is widely seen as the front-runner for Saturday’s polls, portrays itself as business-friendly and has promised to fix the country’s serious economic woes.
His party denies that it is soft on the Taliban or militancy but says a new approach is needed, including an overhaul of the country’s anti-terrorism courts.
The PPP and its coalition partners are the first civilian government to complete a full five-year term in a country whose history has been punctuated by military takeovers. Despite power shortages, tax shortfalls and corruption, they blame the shortcomings of their administration squarely on the Taliban.
“Terrorism is the biggest problem, it took up so much of our resources,” said Zahir Shah, a former health minister and candidate for the PPP in the northwestern provincial capital of Peshawar. “We have done reforms and we will do more.”
Shah said the Taliban threat meant he has only held small meetings in walled compounds. His sister and party activists are also holding clandestine gatherings. At one recent meeting, 40 women and children garlanded them with marigolds on a rooftop.
“Long live Zahir Shah!” they cheered. Two armed police stood guard in the alley below, so narrow that politicians’ convoys could barely squeeze past each other without falling into the open drains running with blood from nearby butcher shops.
Shah said voters would elect him despite the campaigning restrictions because his party had defied the Taliban and helped the poor get free healthcare.
Some of the poor he is counting on for votes are doubtful.
A dialysis center Reuters visited near Peshawar provides quality treatment for free. But at the state-run Khyber Teaching Hospital, grimy walls are crumbling, a mangy cat lurked in the trauma ward and a doctor said the hospital was dangerously short of basic intravenous equipment.
This is where the injured and dying were brought after one of Peshawar’s recent string of bomb blasts.
“No one is secure. There is bloodshed everywhere. The government should do something,” said Fazle Hayat, dabbing at an eye injured in the attack.
He said he had not decided if he would vote.
A short drive away, the remnants of another bombing are displayed in a glass case at Bilour House. They are the shoes and spectacles that Bashir Bilour, an ANP stalwart, was wearing when a Taliban bomb killed him in December.
Another Taliban bomber targeted his brother and his son in April. They survived, but 18 others died. Some other parties did not even offer condolences, Bilour said angrily, because they were afraid of offending the Taliban.
“The Taliban are targeting us because they want an administration that is soft on terrorism,” he said. But parties afraid of offending the Taliban should watch out, he said.
“They are targeting us today but they will be targeting them tomorrow.”
Additional reporting by Jibran Ahmad and Javed Hussain in Parachinar; Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel