The role of religion in polls

Updated May 20, 2018

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THE political landscape in the country is changing fast with the approaching elections. The religio-political parties have also set their tone, indicating a rise in religious sentiment in their electoral campaigns. However, the TV cameras appear more focused on political turfs in Punjab and Karachi. In the heartland of the political arena, the processes of remoulding the PML-N and reconstruction of the PTI also continue.

A few recent by-elections in Punjab and KP triggered a debate, which gradually faded away, on the religious factor in general elections. Even the assassination bid on Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal failed to revive the debate on a threat that could affect the upcoming electoral campaigns.

Apparently, using religious sentiments for acquiring political gains is not confined to religious parties; mainstream political parties have also mastered the art. However, religious sentimentalism is not merely political rhetoric; it has become a life-threatening reality to the extent that mere dissent can bring harm. Although political parties condemned the attack on the interior minister, no one dared challenge the driving force of religious sentimentalism. Perhaps they are not willing to do what they perceive as tantamount to putting their political careers at risk. The ruling party is an obvious target of the hatred arising out of this phenomenon, but also avoids facing it. Otherwise, it would not be able to run its electoral campaign.

It remains to be seen how religious sentimentalism will play in the general elections. But it could become a big challenge for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and security institutions to ensure that polls are conducted in a free and fair environment. At the same time, it would be a huge task for major religio-political parties to keep a distance from some new actors who tend to encourage violent religious sentiments.

Traditionally, religio-political parties have struggled to find an inspiring agenda and narrative.

Traditionally, religious parties have struggled to find an inspiring agenda and narrative in the general elections. Their primary focus has remained on Islamisation of the state and religious socialisation of society. Their worldview is constructed on the notion of the ummah that helped such parties secure a few electoral gains in 2002, mainly in KP and Balochistan; the US invasion of Afghanistan was a major factor in their success.

The alliance of six religiously inspired parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), successfully exploited anti-US sentiments in those elections. However, by the time of the 2008 elections, the anti-US agenda had lost its appeal. Since then, such parties have been trying to make their manifestos and slogans more attractive for the general public while adopting mainstream political discourses.

In the 2013 elections, two major religious parties, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), attempted to build their image as anti-status quo and, to a certain extent, as anti-establishment actors, but these slogans also failed to attract voters. Indeed, in 2013, between them, the religious parties secured five per cent of the total votes, which was the second-worst performance of such parties after the 1997 elections when amongst all religious parties, only the JUI-F secured two National Assembly seats.

The JUI-F, JI and smaller religious parties have revived the MMA as an electoral alliance and their leadership hopes they can repeat the 2002 results. The MMA is missing the emotional appeal it had in 2002, and will build its electoral campaign around four major themes: protecting democracy; Islamisation; anti-extremism; and to a certain extent, being anti-establishment.

To counter its influence in KP, the PTI has entered into an electoral alliance with another one of the JUI’s factions led by Maulana Samiul Haq after donating huge grants to his religious seminary in Akora Khattak. Maulana Sami was an active player in the Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC), an alliance of religious and small political parties formed after 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by American planes along the Afghan border in 2011. The banned Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and the banned Jamaatud Dawa were other active members of the alliance. These three parties have an image of being pro-establishment actors in Pakistan. Maulana Sami tried to convert this alliance into an electoral alliance with the help of the SSP and JuD.

The JuD’s political face, the Milli Muslim League has decided not to be a part of any alliance of religious parties because, first, the registration of the party is still pending with the ECP, and second, it wants to shed the tag of ‘religious’ party. It wants to be considered a mainstream political actor and will enter some broad-based electoral alliance. Because of the registration issue, MML members will contest elections as independent candidates.

Maulana Sami, the SSP and a few of their DPC allies could form an alliance of religious parties similar to the one they formed in 2013. However, the chances of their electoral success are bleak. Yet the alliance would be used not only against the MMA but also other mainstream parties, mainly to challenge their patriotic credentials.

The MMA will focus on KP, Balochistan and some constituencies in Karachi; Punjab, Sindh and the Hazara belt of KP will remain open for other religious parties as well. In these areas, all religious parties appeal to people to some extent, and which could be translated from hundreds to a few thousand votes, depending on the attraction of their electoral narratives. The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan of Khadim Rizvi, its breakaway faction the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Islam, the Nizam-i-Mustafa Muttahida Mahaz, the MML, and small and large sectarian organisations will capitalise on their constituencies in these regions. There is little doubt that these parties will exploit religious and nationalistic sentiments.

If such sentiments reach at a level where it could trigger hatred against political opponents, violence could be the outcome. In this scenario, the religious vote base in these regions may slip from the hands of the MMA and shift to new sectarian and hyper-nationalist political actors.

The hatred and violence will help new religiously inspired actors maximise their vote bank. This might not translate into electoral success but will surely increase their street power and weight as pressure groups.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2018