The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has astonished many with its vote tally in the 2018 general elections. The votes didn’t earn TLP many seats though.

Apart from two Sindh Assembly seats, it could not manage to win any seats elsewhere, but the number of votes the party received were unprecedented for any first-timer religious party.

Punjab turned out to be a stronghold of the TLP in terms of number of votes. Four out of every five votes polled by the party came from Punjab alone.

Vote-wise, the TLP finished third for the Punjab Assembly, surpassing the Pakistan Peoples Party-Parliamentarians (PPPP), but couldn’t convert its popularity into seats.

In a proportional representation system, the TLP would have got nine National Assembly seats in Punjab along with 21 Punjab Assembly seats. The party’s candidates placed third in 62 NA constituencies in Punjab.

This is an extraordinary performance when compared with other parties. The PPPP, for example, won six NA seats in Punjab, remained runner-up on another six, while its candidates placed third on just 27 NA seats.

Out of 141 NA seats in Punjab, the TLP fielded candidates in 121 constituencies; this is astonishing for a party of its size and experience.

The TLP also outnumbered its rival religious parties, at least in Punjab, by a big margin. For instance, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) got a paltry 0.44 million votes in Punjab against the TLP’s tally of around 1.9 million votes.

Op-ed: The politics of religion

Statistics for the Punjab Assembly provide an even deeper insight into the TLP phenomenon.

The TLP fielded 262 candidates — surprisingly, nine of them women — out of 297 constituencies for the Punjab Assembly. A TLP candidate stood runner-up in PP-71, Hafizabad-III.

In 88 PA constituencies, its candidates remained third, while the TLP candidates ranked fourth in another 82.

In four districts — Lahore, Attock, Gujrat, Sheikhupura and Rawalpindi — the TLP bagged votes in the six figures, ranging from 102,000 in Attock to 208,000 in Lahore.

In another eight districts, this tally stood between 50,000 and 100,000 votes.

Needless to say, these districts had and have a strong Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) following.

Politics of emotions

Some Lahore and Peshawar by-elections held in 2017 provided a glimpse of the potential electoral performance of this ultra-conservative religious party representing a sizeable section of the largest Barelvi sect.

The TLP’s mobilisation, by then, relied on the rhetoric of Mumtaz Qadri’s execution. Controversy over a legal amendment to candidates’ declaration form pertaining to the finality of prophethood provided an opportunity to this radical party to expand its outreach and solicit more public support using this emotional card.

The TLP used a single emotional appeal without combining it with another agenda.

The party’s leaders didn’t mince words in articulating their electoral purpose i.e. coming in the way of victory of those who are responsible for the amendment on khatm-i-nabuwat.

The party’s singular target was the PML-N and it appeared to have been successfully hit in Punjab in many cases. Barelvi voters have traditionally been loyal to the PML-N.

It can perhaps be safely assumed that majority of voters who voted for TLP were formerly PML-N.

There are at least 14 NA constituencies in Punjab where the PML-N lost and the TLP received more votes than the difference between votes polled by the returned candidates and the runner-ups. Both the Jhelum constituencies witnessed this phenomenon.

This means that in 14 NA constituencies, the PML-N lost apparently due to TLP. The margin of victory in each of these constituencies is less than the votes polled by TLP.

In other words, if the TLP candidate was not contesting and these votes were to go to the PML-N, the latter would have won.

Two Faisalabad constituencies and one NA constituency each in Rawalpindi, Gujrat, Lahore, Toba Tek Singh, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib, Bahawalpur, Multan, Kasur and Hafizabad districts followed the same trend.

Has emotional appeal alone worked for the TLP?

Perhaps not.

The way the TLP campaigned since the Faizabad dharna attracted relatively serious candidates to the party.

The cadre of disgruntled politicians with differences with their party leadership, along with a group of potential candidates denied tickets by PML-N or the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), were attracted by the TLP.

This was a smart move that no religious party had employed, in full, in the past. Religious parties had always rallied on an agenda without caring much about the existing patronage structures within districts and constituencies.

The TLP used the hybrid model of a single-point, focused and non-negotiable agenda along with support from patronage structures within constituencies.

Many serious candidates with a good electoral footprint were found by the TLP in Attock, Narowal, Hafizabad, Nankana Sahib and other districts, who mobilised their traditional patronage networks along with mosque-based emotional mobilisation of common Barelvi voters.

At the outset of the campaign when mainstream political parties were not showing traditional zeal, the TLP was considered to be a very serious spoiler who could clinch some NA and many PA seats in Punjab.

Related: The spoiler vote

However, when the campaign by the PML-N and PTI picked up momentum, the TLP could not keep pace.

Perhaps the TLP could not muster the workforce required to keep the campaign momentum going in every constituency in the face of competition with seasoned candidates and experienced political workers.

In some constituencies, for example in Narowal district, where the TLP was confident of achieving the ‘desired results’ but could not do so, the party might have miscalculated the ability of the PML-N to withstand the TLP’s emotional onslaught.

Towards the end of the campaign period, a general sense of competition between the PTI and the PML-N had been consolidated in many areas of Punjab and the majority of patronage networks in constituencies had preferred to side with either of two big contestants.

Past precedent

The TLP’s is not the first bid to mobilise Barelvi voters. Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) made the first attempt in the 1970 elections.

The JUP received more than 1.3 million votes in those elections (four per cent of total polled votes, almost equal to the TLP’s performance in terms of percentage of votes polled), winning seven seats in the NA from Karachi, Hyderabad, Jhang and Muzaffargarh.

Another serious attempt to mobilise the Barelvi vote bank on religious grounds was made by Dr Tahirul Qadri in 1990 when he launched the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), fielded candidates in majority of constituencies, but received just above one percent (327,500) of total polled votes with no seats claimed in the 1990 general elections.

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

The difference between previous attempts to mobilise Barelvi voters and the most recent one by the TLP is the agenda.

Dr Qadri had introduced what he would say a comprehensive solution to all ills facing Pakistan and the message, apparently, only reached well-educated, practicing Barelvi voters while the majority preferred to stick to the mainstream.

The JUP in 1970 had relied on general mobilisation of religious parties against socialism in that era divided between red and green.

The agenda today

Khadim Rizvi’s mobilisation, on the other hand, has been carried out on a very sensitive and emotional issue that appeals to many common Barelvi mosque-goers.

His agenda had been further strengthened by the then-opposition parties who endorsed his arguments in an attempt to politically leverage on the issue against the PML-N government.

Some analysts see the TLP’s rise as a result of the declining influence of traditional Barelvi leadership that comes from the upper income groups of scholars and spiritual leaders.

Read next: The Barelvi vote

The TLP leadership comes largely from the lower middle class with relatively lower scholarly credentials.

Generally, more radicalised factions within religious parties and sects have been gaining popularity lately.

Relying on oratory and verbosity, parties like the TLP amass support and traditional leaderships have to side with them or face further decline in their support.

Though the TLP didn’t like the final results, its leaders will definitely eye the next elections to consolidate their surprising gains.

Can TLP's appeal last?

However, going forward, the TLP will face the serious challenge of maintaining its popularity.

Provided that the mobilisation was on a single-point agenda, it is less likely that the party will be able to maintain the momentum in a political environment where the agenda point might not stay relevant for a longer period.

The absence of a nemesis will also hit the party’s prospects.

Without reshaping the party into a political party with a clear future roadmap and an agenda that also deals with worldly ills like governance, gains from the 2018 general elections will remain a one-time stroke of luck for the TLP.

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