In the long term, the by-election result may be remembered most for the candidates who finished third and fourth.
The resurgence of the religious ultra-right in politics ought to be a matter of concern for state and society, with two new parties capturing 11pc of the overall vote cast in NA-120. The parties, which did not exist at the time of the last general election, owe their creation to two different radical ideologies.
Labbaik Ya Rasulallah is a Barelvi grouping that campaigned against the PML-N government for executing convicted murderer Mumtaz Qadri, while the Milli Muslim League has been created from the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaatud Dawa/Falah-i-Insaniyat network and endorses the worldview of Hafiz Saeed.
While the MML could not formally participate in the poll because of a technicality, the organisation’s candidate campaigned brazenly as an independent, and the ECP found itself unable to take action against it for flaunting its ties to a banned group. The two radical campaigns bode ill for next year’s general election.
If sections of the state are willing to experiment with the so-called mainstreaming of militant groups that have not taken up arms against the Pakistani state, democratic institutions must ensure that the terms of engagement are precise and democratic. The current approach of testing by stealth the viability of mainstreaming militant groups is unacceptable.
The MML attempted to participate in the by-election as if the usual rules applicable to normal political parties did not apply to it. In fact, in the case of MML and similar groupings that may emerge, special rules need to apply.
To begin with, there must be a clear and public denunciation of terrorism, militancy and extremism, and recognition that the constitutional democratic process is inviolable. The political process in the country cannot be distorted for the sake of an untested and unproven theory of mainstreaming that sections of the state may be willing to experiment with.
Such groups, if they can be permitted to be part of the democratic process at all, must be regularly audited by the state and the reviews made public. The NA-120 saw mosques being used as campaign centres by the LYR and MML. The ECP should review its rules governing such activities and local law enforcement must regularly monitor mosques, madressahs and social welfare centres that are used for political activities to ensure that violent ideologies and extremism are not promoted.
The democratic process is open and accommodating to a wide range of political thought; but that openness cannot extend to groups that may want to use it to destroy the rule of law, the Constitution and democracy in Pakistan. There needs to be a clear policy for militants willing to renounce militancy, but funnelling them secretively into the democratic process cannot be the right one.
Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2017