How religious does your party have to be to win an election in Pakistan?

Religious parties like JI or JUI have never won enough votes in Pakistan, a country founded in the name of Islam. Is it the will of the people or the influence of electables that dictates electoral success?
Published February 7, 2024

Why have, say, the Jamaat-i-Islami or the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam’s Samiul Haq never won enough votes to form the national government on their own in Pakistan? We are, after all, a country that was created in the name of Islam. Shouldn’t religious parties win more votes?

Two major reasons to explain this: The will of the people of Pakistan has to be accounted for. You ignore popular concerns such as the prices of petrol, potatoes, and power at your peril. Then you have to factor in those who control the levers of the Pakistani state and society. The powers-that-be play an outsized role in the electoral battlefield with their constituency-level lieutenants (read: electable politicians, who can sway election results one way or the other depending on the muscle of their biradari or the depth of their pockets).

Whoever wants to form the government must either have the blessings of the puppet masters, or be able to harness enough popular endorsement by personifying the will of the people. From Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to Imran Khan, however, none of the mainstream leaders have managed to unlock the second route to power. Thus, the tried-and-tested ingredient to forming a national government is electables who can reach the right numbers.

There are over two dozen religious political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan. They all share the goal of Sharia-based governance. Some of them, such as the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — Fazl (JUI-F) and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have wisened up, which means they may do well on February 8. The JUI-F stands out for its Deoband lineage, its sway over the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, and its consistent electoral successes in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and northern Balochistan.

The TLP has also done well in a short span of time; their election strategies are worth looking at, as are those of other parties standing in 2024.

The TLP election strategy

The TLP, which originated as a single-issue mass movement (see box), is contesting the February 8 election on the ‘Islam, Pakistan aur Awam’ slogan that combines its niche with the nationalism card and the popular mandate.

It led a three-week long countrywide march to protest skyrocketing petrol prices in the summer of 2023. More recently, it has gone against the party founder’s creed and started mobilizing women. The TLP has fielded women candidates on general seats this time and has been holding women conventions as part of its election campaign.

The TLP has also selected candidates who are electables and politically loyal. For instance, its panel in Attock from where the party leader, Saad Rizvi, is contesting an NA seat, is made up of quintessential electables such as Syed Altaf Shah Gillani and Amanat Khan Rawal. The former is among the post-May 9 Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf defectors and the latter has an impressive track record. In 2018, Rawal secured 39,000 votes in a three-way race for the provincial assembly seat, PP-IV, in Attock, trailing his PML-N opponent by 771 votes and the PTI winner by almost 10,000 votes.

In Karachi’s Lyari constituency where the TLP nominee was ahead of Bilawal Bhutto in 2018, the party has fielded an influential timber trader from the Gujrati Memon community, Sharjeel Goplani. Similarly, one of its candidates in Lahore, Malik Nawaz Guddu, will be banking on the fortunes made in the city’s real estate boom.

With this tried and tested strategy, and some blessings from the powers-that-be, the TLP’s best case scenario may be to secure a few seats each in the National, Punjab, and Sindh assemblies based on its strong presence in north-central Punjab and Karachi. And if not, the party may still retain a decent share in the overall vote.

The JUI-F election strategy

The JUI-F has historically been a key player in the electoral calculus of KP and Balochistan, forming or being part of successive governments ever since the first general election in the 1970s. In these provinces, the party’s position has rested on a tradition of Deobandi activism around a network of mosques and madrasas. Less appreciated is the populist legacy of the present-day JUI-F whose parent party Mufti Mahmood-led JUI never shied from aligning with left-leaning or pro-democracy coalitions throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s in support of agendas of economic equality and civilian supremacy.

The JUI-F has come a long way, arguably shunning the populist legacy of Mufti Mahmud’s days in favor of a political realism that is in full display these days in the form of active courting of the so-called electable candidates. In Balochistan, the JUI-F have taken on board figures like Aslam Raisani and Mir Zafarullah Zehri to expand its footprint from its support base in the northern Pushtun-dominated districts. In Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, the party has embraced PTI defectors some of whom have been allotted party tickets in Peshawar most prominently. Beyond these strategic moves, its central role in the anti-PTI, People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) alliance, seems to have delivered not many dividends ahead of the polls.

For what it’s worth, the JUI-F and PML-N have reached a seat adjustment on a single constituency of Shangla: part of KP’s Hazara division. These pre-February 8 developments fit well with a larger argument made about the JUI-F by some scholars that it has transitioned from old-school Islamism (the singular focus on top-down Sharia establishment) to a post-Islamist politics that prioritizes the form rather than the content of state functions (constitutional democracy), while still espousing Islamic piety at the social front. Just a year after the 2018 elections, the JUI-F led a five-day countrywide march from Karachi to Islamabad to protest inflation and alleged election rigging.

Given these developments, the JUI-F appears to be on course to at least retain its position of strength in southern KP and northern Balochistan districts. It might give its opponents a run for their money in Peshawar and Shangla districts too.

Parties with a vision defined by their sectarian affiliations
Parties with a vision defined by their sectarian affiliations

Other examples in the political arena: SSP, ST

On the one end of the spectrum is the elite religio-political camp that contains the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam — Fazl, Jamaat-i-Islami, and JUP-Noorani. It is distinguishable by the higher social status of its ulema, Sufis, or lay religious intellectuals. Men such as Fazlur Rehman, Sirajul Haq, Mufti Munib-ur Rehman, or Owais Noorani have spent decades in or close to the corridors of political power and secured leadership positions in major religious parties or religious institutions in state and society.

These men are the heirs to influential legacies. Take the instance of Fazlur Rehman and Owais Noorani. Their fathers — Mufti Mehmood and Shah Ahmed Noorani — were the leading lights of religio-political activism in the 70s and 80s. Many of the religious provisions in the 1973 Constitution were adopted as a result of their participation in parliamentary debates.

Theirs is primarily a politics of constitutional democracy, and they don’t shy from working across sectarian divides for this cause. This was evidenced by their participation in the anti-PTI Pakistan Democratic Movement. Not too long ago, a united front of major religious parties from across the sectarian divide came together in the shape of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, also a result of this leadership’s efforts.

Away from the elite camp, we have a range of new options such as the TLP or splinter groups formed by upstart clerics or lay intellectuals from humbler backgrounds. Their political success is premised on their ability to creatively bring together local conflicts and national and international politics.

Take the case of the emergence of the (banned) Deobandi Sipah-e-Sahaba and Barelvi Pakistan Sunni Tehreek in the 1980s. The former was started by firebrand JUI cleric Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, whose sectarian and militant tactics targeting the landed Shi’ite elite in Jhang soon left him out of favor with the JUI leadership. However, his anti-Shia rhetoric aligned well with a renewed Sunni-Shia rivalry in the region after the Iranian revolution and he found a popular base among the landless Sunni or small-holding peasantry and small traders. This combination ensured a steady stream of men and money needed to run an organization with one foot in electoral politics and another in sectarian militancy. In the February 8 election, the SSP men will be in the electoral arena under the banner of Rah-i-Haq Party.

On the other hand, the Barelvi Sunni Tehreek emerged from the sectarian battles for control over mosques in Karachi. Its founder, Saleem Qadri, was an auto-rickshaw driver before he entered the fray through his association with the Dawat-i-Islami (a Barelvi evangelical organisation of the green turban fame formed in the 1980s along the lines of the much older Deobandi Tableeghi Jamaat). Just like Haq Nawaz, Qadri was able to capitalise on local conflicts around land ownership and regional politics. He and his successors carved a niche for themselves within turf battles over control of mosques and a share in the wealth generated in Karachi’s vast informal economy. On its own, the Karachi-based Sunni Tehreek has never been a major force on the electoral scene. However, for the February 8 election, it has struck a bargain with the TLP. Three ST men will be contesting in Karachi on TLP’s ticket.

In principle, splinter groups and upstart clerics and lay intellectuals engage in a brand of religious politics that combines sectarian militancy with electoralism and social welfare. It is within this subset that we find groups that the security establishment often co-opts and patronises for its vested interests.

No monopoly on religion: mainstream parties

Does a party’s religious leaning have any bearing on its chances in an election? The short answer is, no. The slightly longer version begins with the realisation that in spite of a diverse religio-political landscape, the electoral campaigns have been devoid of any real debate on the question of religion in public life.

How can there be debate if all three mainstream parties (PPP, PML-N, PTI) whose origins do not lie in reform movements also make appeals to their Islamic credentials? For instance, the founding manifesto of the PPP pioneered a socialist agenda for economic redistribution in an Islamic idiom. The emergence of the Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N brought together many former activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing, under the Zia-led military regime. In line with the global rise of authoritarian populist leaders and parties, the Imran Khan-led PTI made passionate references to the 7th Century Islamic state of Madina, renewed emphasis on Islamic education, and campaigned against Islamophobia at global fora.

There is no real public debate on religious issues which could have helped voters distinguish one party from another. Can you imagine a televised debate on our blasphemy laws, for example, with a PPP leader facing off with the TLP chief? It would be too dangerous to have such debates given the threat of violence that accompanies them.

Staying power

It is safe to say, however, that it is unlikely that we’ll be swearing in JUI-F’s Fazlur Rahman or TLP’s Saad Rizvi as the next prime minister. What we are more likely to see is religio-political parties continuing to influence government and public policy, even if they don’t send up MNAs or MPAs to the assemblies. This influence, through non-electoral means, is owed to the inroads religious leadership made into the state apparatus and the mosque-madrassa-charity networks spread far and wide in society.

Therein lies the secret to the longevity of religious parties, even though many of them have put on a mediocre performance at the ballot box. Before transitioning into politics, they operated as social movements. They have sustained themselves by building vast networks that penetrate private education, healthcare, disaster relief, trade unionism, and community service. The erosion of the state’s ability to deliver on these fronts has only strengthened these networks. For example, the Jamaat-i-Islami leveraged the social welfare work of its philanthropic Al-Khidmat Foundation in its campaign for Karachi’s municipal elections. An abstract commitment to religion is not, however, enough to shape an electoral fortune.

Edited by Mahim Maher

Header image: Obair Khan