Whither religious parties?

Published February 11, 2024
The writer is a security analyst
The writer is a security analyst

ON the basis of the provisional results, the success of PTI-backed independents in Thursday’s elections shows that most voters were against the establishment’s role in politics. Political parties aligned themselves accordingly in their electoral campaigns, leading to a pro- and anti-PTI contest in Punjab and KP. Once again, Sindh supported the PPP, a party that avoided aligning itself with the pro-establishment camp. The outcome in Balochistan followed a predictable pattern as pro-establishment candidates won more seats and nationalist parties received limited representation. Religious parties, however, struggled to gain traction in an environment dominated by pro- and anti-establishment sentiments, failing to create any significant impact.

The performance of religious parties in the general election has been one of the worst — as it was in the national polls of 1997. In 2024, JUI-F only secured three National Assembly seats, similar to the 1997 results. Pakistan’s political landscape was not significantly impacted by a Taliban dispensation’s presence in Afghanistan in 1997. A similar trend is observed in these elections. However, it is noteworthy that Maulana Fazlur Rehman secured a National Assembly seat from the border district of Pishin in Balochistan, a constituency directly influenced by changes in Afghanistan. It was considered the safest constituency for him as his position was under threat in his home constituency in Dera Ismail Khan, where the PTI defeated him.

It was expected that the JUI-F would manage a share in a coalition set-up in Balochistan, but the results for the party leadership are not what they expected. Several factors contributed to JUI-F’s electoral defeat. These include internal differences, flawed candidate selection influenced by the leadership’s favouritism, and alleged ticket selling. There was a significant error of perception that the establishment had determined a governance role for the party in KP and Balochistan. The ascendancy of the Taliban in Afghanistan had bolstered this perception, leading the party leadership to believe it had the establishment’s support. However, the establishment could only utilise the party by ‘granting’ it a share in power. Additionally, the JUI-F overlooked the fact that these elections were against the status quo, which the establishment is seen to protect.

The JUI-F secured a few votes in Sindh without any significant success; the major contributing factor in this performance was that the mainstream political parties hardly made serious attempts to challenge the PPP in the province. One of the main contenders, the Muslim League Functional, led by the Pirs of Pagaro, which is becoming weak because of internal differences. The space has been left for the growing madrassah network, mainly along the National and Indus highways. The madressah has many political expressions based on sectarian identity, but JUI-F-affiliated madressahs are politically more vibrant and effectively show themselves in the colours of Sindhi nationalism. However, some would point out that JUI-F growth in Sindh needs to be more organic. Space is also available for mainstream political parties.

The performance of the religious parties in these elections has been one of the worst.

The recent underwhelming performance of the Jamaat-i-Islami in the general elections is a stark reminder that the party and its leadership are losing traction rapidly. The reliance on electoral tactics from the 1980s and 1990s is common among religious parties, who have yet to craft an appealing narrative or a compelling manifesto for the public.

Clearly, the JI needs to undertake deep introspection and strategise to leverage its unique grassroots strengths for electoral success, prioritising local body elections, given its extensive welfare network and trained human resources. One notable example is the surprising victory in Balochistan of a JI candidate, who won a provincial assembly seat due to his renowned welfare work, which resonated with the voters.

In Karachi, while the party benefited from the MQM’s boycott of the last local body elections, its perceived suitability for local governance also played a significant role in its success. JI can carve out a niche on the mainstream political landscape by focusing on local bodies in urban constituencies for at least the next two terms.

The rise of Haq Do Tehreek, led by Maulana Hidayatur Rehman in Gwadar, is another reminder that the JI and other religious parties still have space available if they focus more on local issues. Maulana Hidayat’s legitimacy comes through challenging the status quo in his region.

Sardar Akhtar Mengal had also sensed that anti-establishment sentiments would be instrumental in securing a few seats for Balochistan, and he consistently supported the Baloch Yakjheti Committee led by Dr Mahrang Baloch, a prominent advocate of human rights in Balochistan, particularly regarding the issue of missing persons. Mengal recognised that backing her cause during the election campaign and via social media posts could help his party regain lost momentum, especially as pro-establishment candidates posed tough competition in his core constituencies.

There was much hype surrounding the TLP’s electoral prospects, but the party has yet to impact the political landscape, except for securing a seat in Punjab and a few hundred thousand votes across Pakistan. Its performance shows that the strength of the religious partitas lies in their ideological narratives and sectarian sloganeering; when a conducive environment is not available to exploit public sentiments, these parties fail miserably.

Interestingly, the TLP tried to project itself as a mainstream political party, offering an inclusive manifesto, with women’s participation, and highlighting inflation and price hikes in its election campaigns. However, the party failed to understand that mere sloganeering doesn’t qualify it to become a mainstream party. One can easily differentiate between a religious party and a party that understands the economy and is entrenched in the power structure. Most importantly, even if such parties abandon their toxic narratives and sectarian politics, their past will continue to haunt them. In its pursuit of becoming a mainstream party, the TLP has damaged the support base of Barelvi parties in Punjab and Sindh, as it split their vote and weakened their bargaining position with the mainstream political parties.

Despite their poor performance, this is not the end of the road for religious parties in Pakistan, as their institutions will continue thriving on the resources of the state and donations of the people.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2024

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