THE Islamic parties that have experienced a steep decline in their electoral clout over the years are now going into the 2018 elections hoping for a better outcome. The revival of the, albeit truncated, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is aimed at regaining some lost political space for the religious elements. The coming together of the squabbling religious groups would certainly add to their electoral weight. But can the Islamic political alliance offer a viable alternative to the voters thus making inroads into the existing power matrix?
Essentially, a united front of the JUI-F and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the two most powerful religious groups, the MMA may have a significant support base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but its influence in other parts of the country is debatable. The differences between the two major component parties over key political issues and their distrust of each other will make it more difficult for the alliance to repeat its 2002 success in KP. There is no indication as yet of the MMA making its presence felt across the country.
A major challenge for this mainstream Islamic coalition comes from the rise of more extremist sectarian groups dividing the religious vote bank. The emergence of the newly formed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist Barelvi group, is likely to hurt the MMA the most. It is quite evident that the rise of religious extremism benefits sectarian groups more than the mainstream Islamic parties whose share of votes has fallen significantly since 2008 with the disintegration of the MMA.
A conglomerate of six Islamic parties, the MMA saw its spectacular rise to the country’s political centre stage after the 2002 elections held under military rule when the alliance swept into power in KP. It was the first time the squabbling religious and diverse sectarian groups had come together to achieve the most significant electoral victory yet for the Islamic parties, though they were mainly limited to KP and Balochistan. The alliance may have failed to make any impact in the two other, larger provinces, but its success in the most sensitive border regions changed local political dynamics and also caused international concern.
In KP, it was almost a revolution through the ballot box when in many constituencies, local mullahs defeated powerful political dynasties. This electoral success of the MMA, owed both to the domestic and external political factors arising from post-9/11 events. The role of the military regime may have helped prop up the alliance, but there were other more critical elements that contributed to the MMA’s sweep.
Undoubtedly, the Islamic parties, particularly the JUI, traditionally have had a significant political support base in the region that was further strengthened in the 1980s during the Afghan ‘jihad’ against the Soviet occupation. That was also the period of the rise of Islamist militancy under the patronage of Gen Zia’s military regime. The Afghan war carried long-term consequences not only for the region, but also for the country. The rise of the radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan too had a spillover effect in the border areas further changing the political landscape in KP and the adjoining areas.
While unity among the Islamic parties was an important factor, the success of the MMA in the 2002 parliamentary elections came, in fact, on the wave of strong anti-American sentiments following the invasion of Afghanistan. ‘It is a war against Islam’, was the slogan that struck a chord with voters. The Islamic parties successfully exploited the religious sentiments calling people to vote for the Holy Book. The symbol of the book allotted to the alliance candidate came in handy in mobilising religious support. The field was also left open for the them because of the military government’s action against the PPP and PML-N.
But the five-year MMA rule in KP failed to deliver. The persistent power tussle between the JUI-F and the JI was a major reason for the disaster. The religiously motivated rule encouraged more radical groups to increase their influence. The rise of the Pakistani Taliban movement in Swat and other parts of the province happened with the tacit support of the MMA government.
Inevitably, the alliance fell apart after the end of the MMA government in 2007. The JI’s decision to boycott the 2008 election dealt a further blow to the party. Internal party problems such as young and more radical elements joining global jihadi groups like Al Qaeda have also been the reason for the party’s falling electoral support base. The JUI-F, however, remained active in the electoral field.
In 2013, both the JI and JUI-F fought elections separately, putting up candidates against each other. While the two parties cut into the religious vote bank, they together polled more votes than the PTI. The two parties received 20.38pc votes against the PTI’s 18.99pc. Following the 2013 elections, they followed different political tracks. While JI joined the PTI in the coalition government, the JUI-F remained engaged in a bitter fight with the KP government.
Given expediency and the realisation that a divided house could only damage their electoral prospects, they are back to an alliance of convenience. The decision of some smaller parties to sit out may not affect the reactivated MMA much. But the political environment has also changed hugely from what it was in 2002. Meanwhile, the PTI has encroached on the religious vote bank. But the united front including the two major Islamic parties with their respective strong support bases may present a formidable challenge to the PTI in KP.
Still, the irreconcilable difference between the two parties on some major policy issue such as integration of Fata with KP may seriously affect the MMA’s electoral prospects. The TLP which is putting up candidates in many constituencies could also spoil the game for the MMA. With its extremist slogans, the group evokes wider emotional appeal among the less-educated populace. Although the TLP is essentially a Punjab-based phenomenon, it has also developed something of a support base in KP.
The revival of the MMA may improve the electoral prospects of the religious elements in KP and Balochistan but it is highly unlikely that it would have any significant impact in the other provinces.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2018