These parties have all pushed for peace negotiations with the Taliban instead of military offensives, and the militant group recently said talks should be mediated by the leaders of the top two Islamic parties and the Pakistan Muslim League-N. The parties that have been targeted by the Taliban have also called for peace negotiations, but have demanded the militants put down their weapons and endorse the constitution first and have vowed to continue fighting them until that happens. The Taliban have rejected these conditions.
"This is not a level playing field," Awami National Party leader Afrasiab Khattak said.
The Pakistani Taliban have been waging a bloody insurgency in Pakistan for years to enforce Islamic law in the country and to break the government's alliance with the United States in fighting militants. They have killed thousands of civilians and security personnel in scores of gun and bomb attacks.
The group's main sanctuaries are in the rugged northwest along the Afghan border, including the semiautonomous tribal region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Taliban have also established a significant presence in the southern city of Karachi and have stepped up attacks there.
The militant group issued audio and video messages last month warning people to stay away from rallies held by the Awami National Party and two other secular parties that have supported army offensives against the militants in the northwest: the Pakistan People's Party, which led the most recent government, and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which controls Karachi.
The Taliban have carried out at least 10 attacks against candidates and party workers, mainly those in the Awami National Party. The attacks have killed at least 18 people, including a candidate for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement. Many other candidates have been wounded, including five from the Awami National Party.
"This is a clear attempt by the so-called 'non-state actors' to oust and defeat moderate parties," said Raza Rumi, a political analyst who runs the Jinnah Institute think tank in Islamabad. "This can't be a fair and free election."
The Awami National Party has closed over 50 of its election offices in recent months, mainly in Karachi and Peshawar, because of the threat of attack. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement has stopped holding the massive public rallies that it is known for in Karachi. The Pakistan People's Party had to cancel a large event in southern Sindh province at the beginning of April that was meant to mark the start of its campaign because of security reasons.
Khattak, the Awami National Party leader, called on all political parties to come forward and condemn the attacks on candidates. Many have remained silent or have refused to name the Pakistani Taliban, either for ideological reasons or out of fear of being targeted themselves.
"You have to decide whether you are with the terrorists or with the people," Khattak said.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report.
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