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From spotlight to backstage: the MMA’s decline into obscurity

At best, the alliance can only hope for marginal gains in the 2018 elections.
Updated Jul 17, 2018 10:02am

After almost a decade, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), which emerged as the third-biggest political force in the 2002 general elections, is back as a five-member religio-political alliance to contest the polls in 2018, comprising the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Jamaat-i- Islami (JI), Jamiat Ahle Hadith and the Islami Tehreek (IT).

It was back in early 2000, after the toppling of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, that the General Pervez Musharraf-led military government, which had vowed to never allow the return of the exiled leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), was desperate to find an alternative political force.

The JI was on good terms with the military government. Then-JI chief, the late Qazi Hussain Ahmed, even went on a tour of the United States, where he spoke to think-tanks in a bid to portray his image as a moderate religio-political leader.

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In the 2001 local bodies elections, the JI also managed to get hold of Karachi’s city government. The MQM had boycotted the polls.

However, in the aftermath of 9/11 and in the lead-up to the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was being pressured by the US to take action against hostile religious elements within its borders.

General Musharraf had no choice but to crack down on militant organisations and cooperate with the American-led coalition.

Tracing the origins of the MMA

This created a furor within domestic religious circles, resulting in several religious parties (including some non-Muslim ones) uniting for the formation of the Difa-i-Afghanistan Pakistan Council (DAPC).

The alliance agitated against the toppling of the Taliban government in Afghanistan; with Pakistan allying itself with the US in the War on Terror, the country’s participation was turned into an electoral issue.

Yet, at the same time, the DAPC members had conflicting views on the Afghan Taliban. The JUI-F and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Sami (JUI-S) supported the Taliban, but the JI was opposed because they were backing the Gulbadin Hikmatyar faction that was ousted from their strongholds by the Taliban.

The Tehreek-i-Jaferia Pakistan (TJP), an organisation of Shia clergy led by Allama Sajid Naqvi, became part of the DAPC as well. Even though Shias were strongly against the Taliban given their involvement in the killing of Shias in Bamyan and other parts of Afghanistan, the single-point agenda of opposing the US in the region and General Musharraf’s compliance brought everyone together.

Op-ed: Return of the MMA

But the DAPC had a precedent. In 1995, the major religio-political parties and smaller groups from other sects had joined hands to form the Milli Yakjehti Council (MYC).

This non-political organisation was headed by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan-Noorani (JUP-N) chief, Shah Ahmed Noorani, and had the JUI-F, JUI-S, JI, TJP, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Sawad Azam Ahl-i-Sunnat and Sipah-i-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) as its members.

Its aim was to bring religious parties together to end sectarian violence. The MYC was initially successful in easing tensions, but radical elements in both Sunni and Shia organisations resorted to violence soon after, rendering the MYC ineffective.

Later, in August 2001, militant sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and SMP were banned; in January 2002, their mother organisations, the SSP and TJP, were also proscribed.

Other members of the MYC, including the TJP which was rechristened as the IT after being banned, joined the DAPC.

They held country-wide protests, organising rallies, and issuing strike calls. A couple of months before the 2002 general elections, the DAPC turned into an electoral alliance: the MMA.

The rise of the MMA

From right to left: Maulana Gul Naseeb Khan, current MMA Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president; Fazlur Rehman, MMA chief; Akram Khan Durrani, former chief minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
From right to left: Maulana Gul Naseeb Khan, current MMA Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president; Fazlur Rehman, MMA chief; Akram Khan Durrani, former chief minister Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The move was unprecedented. Religious parties, who normally couldn’t even pray together with their religious rivals, displayed exemplary unity.

This brought them votes in urban centres, while in rural parts, they relied on their traditional support base. This explains how they managed to win constituencies in all the provincial capitals and a constituency in the federal capital.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), they clean sweeped the major cities, winning all the national assembly (NA) constituencies in Peshawar, Mardan and Swat, along with the JUI-F’s traditional strongholds in southern district of Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat, Lakki Marwat and Hangu, and the JI strongholds of Upper and Lower Dir.

Along with those, they bagged Quetta’s only NA constituency, three in Lahore and five in Karachi.

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

Not disregarding other factors, what favoured the MMA was the absence of leadership among the mainstream political parties (many stalwarts were not contesting), the charged environment against General Musharraf, as well as the change in graduation degree demands from candidates (madrassah degrees were made equivalent to university degrees).

The MMA formed government in KP, had a coalition government with the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) in Balochistan, and had representation in Punjab and Sindh assemblies. In the NA, Fazal ur Rehman got the opposition leader slot.

Fazal and the alliance worked with the PML-Q-led government to approve the 17th Amendment, allowing General Musharraf to get elected as president of Pakistan while in military uniform, as well as taming the agitating partner, Qazi Hussain Ahmed and his party, the JI.

The coalition disintegrates

Lawyers protesting in Karachi for the restoration of judiciary. —Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Lawyers protesting in Karachi for the restoration of judiciary. —Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

The alliance fell apart in the assemblies’ last year in 2007 due to the JUI-F’s lack of enthusiasm for the movement for the restoration of the judiciary.

The JI boycotted the 2008 general elections, doubting the integrity of the polling process, but the JUI-F and other parties decided to keep intact whatever remained of the alliance and went into the elections under the MMA name, flag and election symbol.

The alliance faced a major defeat except for in those constituencies in KP and Balochistan where the JUI-F was strong. The MMA was no more and the JUI-F joined the PPP-led coalition government at the centre and in Balochistan under its own name.

It was during these years that the JI leadership changed. Munawwar Hasan became party chief; he had expressed his disapproval of the JUI-F chief and his political antics on several occasions, which ended any chance of reviving the MMA. In 2013, religious parties contested polls independently.

The MMA redux

Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan chief Shah Ovais Noorani addressing a press conference at Bait-ul-Rizwan in Clifton after the decision to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal. Other leaders of the five-party alliance are also seen.—Online
Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan chief Shah Ovais Noorani addressing a press conference at Bait-ul-Rizwan in Clifton after the decision to revive the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal. Other leaders of the five-party alliance are also seen.—Online

The 2013 elections marked the entry of another political force: Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which became the third-largest party at the centre and won all the constituencies previously dominated by the MMA and the Awami National Party in KP (except for the southern districts of Bannu, Tank, Lakki Marwat, and Dera Ismail Khan).

For the JUI-F, the fear of losing its traditional support base in the southern districts of KP and the tribal belt integrated recently with the province, coupled with the desire for a few constituencies in the Peshawar valley and the adjacent districts where there is anti-incumbency sentiment, made the party express willingness to rejoin hands with the JI, reviving the MMA for the upcoming elections.

In the absence of the stalwarts like the late Allama Shah Ahmed Noorani, late Qazi Hussain Ahmed — both former presidents of the MMA — and his adversary Sami ul Haq of the JUI-S, Fazal ur Rehman is at the helm of the affairs at the MMA now.

He has shown his maneuvering skills in bagging most of the seats allotted to his party by the reborn alliance.

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For Siraj ul Haq, the JI chief, the MMA’s revival comes with the hope of keeping hold of his home district of Lower Dir and the party stronghold of both Upper and Lower Dir. He needs additional backup from the JUI-F, as the PTI has made inroads in these constituencies.

The JI also hopes that the MMA could help the party win a few constituencies in other districts where the sum of the total vote for the JUI-F and the JI was more than the PTI’s in 2013.

A possible seat adjustment with the PML-N in Swat, Shangla, Buner, Swabi and numerous other areas would also help the JI in their electoral contest against Imran Khan’s party.

In Karachi, the JI eyes an opening after the weakening of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the expected split in the Mohajir vote bank due to the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) factions.

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But an anti-MQM narrative is not a reliable option to win votes, especially since the PSP and PTI are also vying to win the Mohajir vote along the same lines.

That is why, during the last two years, the JI has focused on issues such as K-Electric and the problem of overbilling. The party has been at the forefront in pursuing the electricity company in public hearings, court proceedings and public agitation against it.

The provision of computerised national identity cards (CNIC) to those inhabitants of Karachi who face unnecessary delays and suspicions from the National Database Regulatory Authority (NADRA) in getting their CNICs is another issue the JI has prioritised.

The JI ran a city-wide campaign demanding NADRA to facilitate people and stop creating unnecessary hurdles. The party’s Karachi chief, Hafiz Naeem ur Rehman, has managed to bring civic issues forward on its agenda and is hopeful that the JI would benefit as a result in the upcoming elections. He is contesting from NA-250, a constituency with a Pakhtun majority.

Stumbling blocks

Participants of TLP's rally march down the Islamabad Expressway on Thursday. —Photo by Tanveer Shahzad
Participants of TLP's rally march down the Islamabad Expressway on Thursday. —Photo by Tanveer Shahzad

Today, a major hurdle for the MMA in Karachi comes in the shape of resurgent sectarian outfits like the Pakistan Sunni Tehrik (PST) and the ASWJ-affiliated Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party; the entry of radical Barelvi group, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP); and the Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek, an offshoot of the Jamaat ud Dawa.

In 2013, ASWJ, contesting elections as part of the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz — a coalition that included the JUI-S and Rah-i-Haq — posed a challenge to the JUI-F as it secured more votes than the latter in PS-128 (but lost to the MQM by a small margin).

For the JUI-F and the JI, their MMA allies would win them little support from the Barelvi and Shia voters. The Barelvi vote has too many contenders this time as both the PST and the TLP have also fielded their candidates in Karachi.

In-depth: Barelvis may tip the scale in favour of PTI in Murree

In Balochistan, the JI has no presence, which is why all the MMA candidates have come from the JUI-F which strong in the province's Pashtun belt and has managed to build support in some Baloch districts.

The JUI-F has been part of the coalition governments in 2002 and 2008, and the party’s pragmatic politics has earned them the name ‘da thekeydaro dalaa’ (the party of contractors), based off its lawmakers’ reputations for striking partnerships with the contractors of development projects.

The party has to compete against strong electables and tribal chieftains, Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties and a breakaway faction, the JUI-Nazriati. But still, it’s quite possible that the future Balochistan government can’t be formed without the JUI-F (the MMA).

Shifting sands

What is different today from 2002 is that the MMA no longer has on its side the international and local narrative and political realities.

The war in Afghanistan cannot mobilise Pakistani voters, while the emergence of forces like the PTI, TLP and others has added to the competition, which might hamper its chances in Karachi, for example.

Nor is the MMA in a position to promise sectarian harmony as its earlier incarnations had tried.

Last but not the least, the MMA's performance when in government was not praiseworthy either, making it difficult for voters to take the party seriously this time.

At best, the alliance can only hope for marginal gains in the 2018 elections.

Illustration by Neha Faisal