RELIGIOUS parties have generally failed to perform at the ballot box in Pakistan and their offshoots — parties based on sect — have fared even worse. This trend sustained itself in the 2013 general elections as both Shia and Sunni parties fared dismally. Shia grouping Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen, which was contesting elections for the first time, as well as the Sunni far-right Muttahida Deeni Mahaz alliance, which contained the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (successor of Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan) under its umbrella, failed to convince voters to give them a shot at power. The MWM only managed to secure one Balochistan Assembly seat while the MDM failed to get any candidates into the assemblies, though ASWJ leader Ahmed Ludhianvi lost by a whisker to the PML-N in the Jhang National Assembly seat he was contesting.
Sectarian politics came to the fore in the Ziaul Haq era; it was given oxygen by the dictator’s ‘Islamisation’ campaign while the influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran in local politics was also a factor in its growth as far-right Sunni groups such as the SSP were formed in reaction to a more pronounced Shia political identity in Pakistan after Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Since then overtly Shia and Sunni parties have become a permanent feature on the political landscape. While the voter has repeatedly rejected sect-based groups, their rise, growth and continued presence points to key issues that must be addressed by mainstream parties. For example the MWM’s rise, which campaigned against the targeting of Shias, came about because many Shias felt the major political parties did little to protect them from sectarian militants. Such grievances appear justified. Hence if mainstream parties fail to address sectarian violence, they may face further alienation of the Shia voter.
But, the fact remains that most Shias and Sunnis in Pakistan do not vote along communal lines. For that matter, even Islamist parties have failed to attract the voter in this country. Hence Shias and other religious groups that feel victimised need to engage with political parties; the future lies in convergence with the political mainstream. As for the major parties, they need to reassure voters of all creeds that their rights will be protected and that they will work to build a society free of sectarianism. Regarding groups like the ASWJ who lost by small margins, this is indeed a troubling indication. However, this can also be countered by mainstream political parties by ensuring good governance and the rule of law, thus taking the wind out of the extremists’ sails.