Pakistan’s 2018 elections marked just the second time in history that power transferred peacefully from one civilian government to another after a full term in office. Although the initial months of campaigning were relatively free of violence, the two weeks before polling were dangerous for campaigners and voters alike, and the elections provided a platform for some parties to incite violence, particularly against Pakistan’s minority sects. This report provides a deep examination of how exposure to political violence in Pakistan’s largest city affects political behavior, including willingness to vote and faith in the democratic process.

A supporter of Imran Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaaf party ultimately won a plurality of legislative seats, wears a mask with Khan’s face during a campaign rally. (Photo by Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)
A supporter of Imran Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaaf party ultimately won a plurality of legislative seats, wears a mask with Khan’s face during a campaign rally. (Photo by Akhtar Soomro/Reuters)

Summary

  • After a relatively peaceful start, the 2018 general elections in Pakistan were marred by violence, including a suicide attack in Balochistan Province that killed 149 people. Karachi, normally a site of political violence, saw relative levels of calm leading up to the elections, partly because of an ongoing government paramilitary operation against criminal and terrorist actors. However, the operation also weakened and splintered the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, one of Pakistan’s major political parties; as a result, it was unable to campaign effectively and fared poorly.
  • A survey conducted in Karachi just before the elections showed that exposure to violence had a significant impact on political behavior and views. The survey found that individuals exposed to violence are less likely to trust that elections would be free and fair, and more likely to expect and fear electoral violence. The impact of violence on political behavior was greater for respondents exposed to violence perpetrated by political or state elements, and such individuals are less likely to turn out to vote.
  • The survey also found very low baseline levels of trust between ethnic communities in Karachi. Exposure to violence is correlated with higher levels of intolerance, a troubling finding in violent, multiethnic contexts such as Karachi (and in Pakistan more broadly).
  • Narratives that framed Karachi’s history of violence in distinct ways had minimal effect on decreasing prejudice, indicating that intergroup trust may be difficult to alter in the short term. It may be more critical to change the larger structural conditions that create intolerance in general and instigate violent activity in particular.

About the Report

Since at least the 1980s, politics in the megacity of Karachi, Pakistan, have been marred by violence between various ethnic groups, each represented by distinct political parties. This report, based on a household survey of more than 1,800 residents of Karachi conducted during the run-up to Pakistan’s July 2018 elections, assesses the relationship between exposure to violence and political attitudes and behavior. The research was supported by USIP’s Asia Center.

About the Authors

Mashail Malik is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at Stanford University. Niloufer Siddiqui is an assistant professor of political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the State University of New York at Albany.

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