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Fringe groups encroach upon old religious parties’ domain

Updated June 27, 2018

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MILLI Muslim League camp set up during last September’s by-polls in Lahore.—File
MILLI Muslim League camp set up during last September’s by-polls in Lahore.—File

Conventional religious political parties appear too boring or too subtle for the people — as indicated by the realignment of religious and national politics with the emergence of more radical groups contesting the July 25 general elections.

The recent decision by Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek to boycott the elections has lent credence to the opinion that the party saw little manoeuvring space in the changing religious politics, as any group that can impact an election by taking part in it will hate to miss the opportunity.

Qadri talked quite pessimistically about the system that might have been consistent with his recent pronouncements, but it was a huge departure from what he had been advocating until a few years back. Election and democracy were an essential part of the PAT campaign, but a total rejection of that line now shows the shrinking space for manoeuvring in the country’s politics.

Some other right-wing parties are not as dismissive of the system as the PAT chief is right at this moment, but they are faced with serious problems related to their existence. These right wing parties doing politics in the mainstream have been gradually hit by the phenomenon that necessitated popular political parties to go to their right in search of votes. Both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have encroached upon the territory that once belonged to them. Punjab is a province where this trend is very pronounced.

After courting the PML-N for so many years, the Jamaat-i-Islami, for example, is finding it difficult to keep its presence in Punjab.

Gone are the days when the JI could display sufficient pubic support that it could exploit to strike electoral deals with the PML-N and secure a few seats here and there for itself.

Now it is also hoping that an upturn in its fortunes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (as a result of the revival of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal — an alliance of disparate religious parties including the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal) will spill over to the neighbouring Punjab.

Explore: Will reviving MMA have an impact on the 2018 elections?

226 is the number of candidates the MML is supporting for both national and provincial assemblies from across the country.

However, not entirely insignificant is the challenge these conventional right-wing parties of some standing face from the more radical religious political groups that have emerged due to a realignment of religious politics and national politics generally. Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) is one such group that appears ready to take the Jamaat’s position as a spoiler in Punjab in the upcoming polls. To a lesser extent, analysts don’t rule out the potential of Hafiz Saeed’s cadres contesting under the banner of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT) to influence a contest if not winning a fight or two. And, mind you, these movements or groups are in for a long haul.

“We do not claim that we will win the election and come to power. We are at the moment trying to establish ourselves in domestic politics, trying to take our message to the people. Politics is a long journey and we are in for long innings,” Tabish Qayyum, a spokesman for the Milli Muslim League, the newly created political wing of banned outfit Jamaatud Dawa, told Dawn.

The MML is “supporting” 265 candidates for both national and provincial assemblies from across the country, mostly from Punjab, contesting from the AAT platform after the Election Commission of Pakistan did not register the MML as a political party due to its links with Hafiz Saeed-led JuD. The MML says not all the candidates belong to it as most of them have been chosen and fielded by the AAT.

He vehemently rejects the suggestion that the MML was out at the behest of some hidden force to counter the PML-N in Punjab. “No. Countering the PML-N isn’t our objective. We used to support the PML-N earlier. We are in politics because the PML-N now talks of turning Pakistan into a liberal country and has retreated from our longstanding stance on Kashmir under the influence of foreign powers.”

The TLY — a Barelvi outfit founded in 2015 after the execution of Mumtaz Qadri for killing then Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Islamabad in 2011 for speaking in support of a Christian woman who was accused of blasphemy — is fielding its candidates from all the four provinces. The group will contest the poll on the single-point agenda of Khatm-i-Nubuwat.

“We are not bothered if people will vote for us or not [in the next elections]. We have provided voters a platform, a cause to fight for; our job is done. It is now for the people [to choose]. We’re in politics for a long haul,” claimed TLY leader Zubair Kasuri, while expressing the hope that the group would win at least 15 to 20 national seats from Punjab.

“We have emerged as the third largest party in the by-polls in Lahore and elsewhere. And we have accomplished this not by promising paved streets or drains, but by committing ourselves to fight for Khatm-i-Nubuwat,” he said, adding that the TLY would field candidates for at least 80 per cent of national and provincial seats in all the four provinces.

Some political analysts argue that the replacement of conventional religious parties with groups such as TLY and MML represents ‘degeneration’ of religious politics in the country over the time. “These movements do not actually believe in democracy and are focused on a very narrow, one-point radical, sectarian agenda. Not that the old conventional parties were truly democratic outfits. The politics of the new players is far more aggressive, condemnatory and exclusionary than their predecessors. These groups have begun their journey from a point where the conventional religious political parties have yet to reach,” a Karachi-based analyst contended.

Though religion plays an important part in the life of most Pakistanis, the religious political parties have remained unable to gain much success in elections since 1970.

Historically, the religious parties’ share in the votes cast in any election has fluctuated around five to seven per cent, barring the 2002 poll under Gen Pervez Musharraf when the MMA won 11 per cent of the total cast vote and 56 national assembly seats. It also formed its government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and was part of the coalition in Balochistan.

But JI leader Farid Paracha doesn’t agree that the vote bank of religious parties is insignificant. “After 1970, the religious parties fought most elections as part of alliances with other political parties. So it is difficult to say anything about their share in the votes during that period. However, the MMA success in 2002 shows that if the religious parties go into elections from a single platform they can not only consolidate their vote bank but also build on it over time.”

He was of the opinion that religious parties had not been able to capitalize on their support in society during elections because of their poor strategy. “We could have increased the size of our vote bank to 15 to 17 per cent if the MMA hadn’t split before 2008 polls and the JI had not decided against participating in it. We have suffered electoral losses in 2008 and 2013 because of lack of a good strategy and disunity. Moreover, we do not have the kind of electable candidates who can attract biradari vote or spend a lot of cash on campaign or are considered effective by local communities in getting their day-to-day problems related to police and other government agencies solved.”

The opinion is divided as to which party will benefit from the entry of TLY and AAT into the electoral fray. Paracha thinks that the presence of TLY will benefit the PML-N. If the TLY helps stop the voters disillusioned by “the PML-N government decision to execute Mumtaz Qadri” from shifting their loyalty to the PTI, it will help Nawaz Sharif’s party, he says.

Hasan Javid, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), believes it is too early to predict how the new radical religious groups will perform on July 25. But he said that sectarian groups such as the TLY could play the role of a ‘spoiler’ in close contests between the PML-N and the PTI in Punjab. “My guess is these groups could damage the PML-N on 30 to 40 seats in Punjab where the victory margins are low. Little wonder then that Capt Safdar has time and again spoken in support of Mumtaz Qadri, supported the movement for Khatm-i-Nubuwat and supported renaming of the Dr Abdus Salam Centre for Physics at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. He has actually been signalling the voters, who may ditch the PML-N by supporting the TLY or any other party, that his party is ready to accommodate them.”

Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018