HAJI MUSLIM/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

HAJI MUSLIM/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom

In the lead up to the historic May 11 elections, the Pakistani Taliban (also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP) and other radical Islamist groups are attacking Pakistani parties that they deem too “secular”—mainly parties in the ruling coalition.

The TTP are using high-profile terror attacks as a strategic tool to disrupt Pakistan’s, to keep voter turnout for the “secular” parties low, and to skew the vote towards more TTP-friendly parties. In a recent statement, TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud said that their goal is to “end the democratic system” in Pakistan.

As Heritage’s Lisa Curtis notes:

The TTP is not only targeting candidates but has also vowed to attack voting booths to deter Pakistanis from exercising their right to the franchise. The government has declared that more than 70 percent of polling stations in the northwest province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the nearby tribal border areas are at risk of attack.

Pakistan has suffered from intense internal violence and terror from radical Islamist groups over the past decade. Statistics from the South Asian Terrorism Portal, an India-based think tank, highlight the alarming amount of violence in Pakistan over the past few years. In 2012, there were 6,211 terrorism-related deaths. In 2011, there were 6,303 deaths—more terrorist-related and insurgent-related deaths than in Afghanistan for the same year. In the first 69 days of 2013 alone, there were 1,537 terrorism-related deaths, and the number of attacks and deaths continues to rise.

High-profile bombings, like the one in Peshawar on April 29, and targeted political assassinations against opposition candidates threaten to further destabilize Pakistan. Attacks occur almost on a daily basis and they instill fear within secular party candidates and potential voters, thereby disrupting a legitimate democratic process.

As B. Raman of the South Asia Analysis Group argues:

As one waits for a clearer indicator of the likely outcome of the polls, one has to be worried over the possibility of rogue elephant terrorist organisations such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) causing major disruptions in the elections, particularly in the Pashtun areas and in Karachi. If they can disrupt the elections in Karachi and aggravate the instability there, the political consequences could be unpredictable.

Pakistan has become a primary sanctuary for radical extremist groups and will be absolutely critical in the United States’ future struggle against Islamist terrorist groups. A free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power to a legitimate government would be a step forward for Pakistani democracy. However, elections alone will not bring a reduction in the violence and terrorism plaguing the country. Unless the new government adopts a zero-tolerance policy toward all terrorist groups, the TTP and Sunni extremist groups will continue to threaten stability in Pakistan.

Sadly, major Pakistani political leaders, particularly Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan, have campaigned on a platform of seeking negotiations with the TTP, which would only embolden the group to continue its violent agenda. Whenever the Pakistan government and/or military have tried to strike peace deals with terrorist groups in the past, the results have been disastrous for the state. The situation in the Swat Valley in 2009 was a prime example of the pitfalls of trying to appease the militants.

Curtis sums up the situation from a U.S. perspective best:

The United States may have calculated that keeping a low profile during Pakistan’s election campaign will help keep anti-American sentiment from negatively influencing the Pakistani election outcome. But American officials must weigh this compulsion with the reality that moderate and liberal Pakistani leaders rely on the U.S. to actively promote democratic ideals, such as freedom of speech and religion, rule of law, and respect for a credible and fair electoral process. The campaign season in Pakistan has taken some alarming turns, raising questions about whether the electoral process—rather than raising the voice of the Pakistani people—is contributing to silencing those who shun extremist ideologies.

Unfortunately, the TTP’s campaign of violence and intimidation has been successful and the elections have lost much of their legitimacy and fairness. Unless Pakistan’s leaders decide to stand up and fight the TTP and other terrorist groups, the cycle of violence will continue and Pakistan will continue to be a safe haven for extremists.