Updated October 01, 2017


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The result of the by-election in Lahore’s NA-120 constituency generated a lot of debate in the media. The constituency had fallen vacant after former prime minister of Pakistan Mian Nawaz Sharif was ousted from his post by the Supreme Court. He had won the election from this constituency in 2013, bagging 91,666 votes. His closest rival was PTI’s Dr Yasmin Rashid who had received 52,321 votes.

Much of the debate — after the result was announced — revolved around the 10 percent votes which the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lost in this constituency (compared to the 2013 election) and the 3.47 percent increase in the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) vote bank. This happened despite the PML-N candidate, Begum Kulsoom Nawaz, managing to defeat Dr Yasmin Rashid by 14,646 votes. However, compared to the voter turnout of over 50 percent in the last election, it was less than 40 percent in the by-election.

The debate in the media widened a bit when experts began to figure out where the PML-N’s 10 percent lost votes went. Since the PTI saw an increase of just 3.47 percent and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) could bag only 0.58 percent of the total vote, about 11 percent of the votes were cast for two new religious parties, the Milli Muslim League (MML) affiliated with the banned Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), and a candidate backed by Labaik, a militant Barelvi party.

Much has been made of the vote share garnered by religious parties in the NA-120 by-election. But how unusual was it really?

According to a September 19 report in Dawn, much of the 10 percent vote lost by the PML-N most likely went to the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah candidate who came third in the race with 7,130 votes. The report suggests these were PML-N voters in this constituency who were angry with the PML-N regime’s decision to hang Mumtaz Qadri — the radicalised murderer of Salman Taseer, former Punjab governor and PPP man. Qadri had accused Taseer of blasphemy for opposing Pakistan’s divisive blasphemy laws.

The PTI was expecting to make significant gains in this constituency after the party’s aggressive drive against Sharif. But as one PTI member lamented on a TV talk show, about five to six percent of the votes the party was expecting to gain were shared by the Labaik candidate and the MML-backed contender, leaving the PTI to garner only a three percent increase.

Another reason why the 11 percent votes received by the two religious parties in this election was a hotly discussed topic is the way the emergence of these outfits has polarised large sections of mainstream politics of the country. In a September 15 report, Reuters claimed that parties such as the MML were part of an experiment by segments of the Pakistani state to neutralise belligerent militant groups through a “mainstreaming” process. Some have hailed this strategy while others have suggested that it is akin to bringing in radicalised elements into the assemblies or those who have yet to denounce their militant ideas.

Former editor of Dawn Abbas Nasir tweeted after the election that this 11 percent should not be very alarming because religious parties have more or less gained similar fractions of votes in the country. If we investigate this, some very interesting findings will emerge.

For example, during the country’s first major general election in 1970, which saw non-religious parties on the left and the centre sweep the polls, the religious parties bagged over 18 percent of the total vote. The tally included votes cast in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) as well. And even though the post-1971 National Assembly was packed with members of left-leaning parties such as the PPP and the now defunct National Awami Party (NAP), professor of history Ali Usman Qasmi in his book The Ahmadis and Politics of Religious Exclusion in Pakistan points out that this was also the first time more than 15 members affiliated with religious groups became part of a legislative assembly of Pakistan.

The irony of it all is that this 18 percent or so vote share of religious parties, which was gained during the height of the left-democratic sentiment in the country in 1970, dropped drastically when democracy returned to Pakistan after the demise of a right-wing dictatorship in 1988. This dictatorship had been greatly beneficial to religious outfits who also managed to get the regime to add various contentious clauses to the constitution (in the name of faith).

Yet during the 1988 election, the religious parties were unable to garner more than four to five percent of the total vote. These included votes won by those religious parties that were part of the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI). A bulk of the 30.2 percent share of votes won by the IJI went to its main non-religious (but conservative) component party, the PML. In the 1993 election, the combined percentage of votes gained by all religious outfits was just 6.7 percent. In the 1997 election it further slumped to just 2.3 percent.

During the 2002 election held under a ‘moderate’ dictatorship, the religious parties attempted to arrest the slump by grouping together as a whole. Though it was an awkward grouping of competing Muslim sects and schools of thought, the alliance managed to bag 11.3 percent of the total vote. However, the alliance collapsed during the 2008 election and the religious parties’ share of votes fell to just 2.21 percent. It climbed a bit during the 2013 election to approximately seven percent.

Indeed, the 11 percent vote share by the two new religious parties in the NA-120 by-election is a significant feat, but this is just one constituency out of the total 342. The non-religious mainstream parties are more robust in their campaign to gather votes during the general elections and this is when religious outfits get trampled.

However, one can expect new and more vigorous religious outfits to make gains in some constituencies in the aftermath of a period in which the state and government have become more conscious of sidelining radical elements that had gained a footing during the much troubled post-9/11 era in this country. Also, due to the changing situation in this context, non-religious conservative parties such as the PML-N have shifted more to the centre. This may disaffect some of its more conservative voters, but the party has certainly gained a share of votes of the disgruntled PPP voters who in Punjab had almost entirely gone to the PTI’s side in 2013.

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2017