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Politics of acrimony

April 28, 2013

THE two main religious political parties that joined forces under the banner of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal in 2002 to achieve a historic win in the then NWFP are now at loggerheads.

Not only are the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) taking solo flights in the May 11 elections, they are also taking swipes at each other whenever possible and questioning, amongst other things, each other’s claims of representing the religious right.

“It is not a religious party,” says Jalil Jan, the JUI-F’s information secretary and the party’s candidate from Peshawar’s PK-3. “It’s a party of professors and engineers. We have the mosque on our side, we have the madressah (seminary) and we have a huge following amongst the seminary students. What does the JI have?”

But speak to a JI leader and he’ll tell you how the JUI-F has changed in all these years from a party that represented the pulpit to one that is now dominated by the wealthy.

“Look around, and find out how many of their candidates are ulema (religious scholars),” observes the JI’s Prof Ibrahim. “The rich who have no religious credentials have found a new sanctuary in that party. It has abandoned the ulema.” This may be true — to an extent.

The JUI-F is opening up — nay, transforming — to allow clean-shaven, moneyed candidates to enter a party that has claimed adherence to the Deobandi school of thought and espoused politics of the masjid and the mehrab to great advantage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

The fate of the MMA’s revival was sealed with the death of veteran JI leader Qazi Husain Ahmed, an ardent proponent of a religio-political alliance. There was little chance of success of the feeble attempts at resurrection made here and there by the MMA’s smaller component parties, which feared elimination from the political scene altogether.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman avoided the move for his own reasons, realising that the alliance suited the JI more than his own JUI-F. The former, Fazlur Rehman’s party leaders believe, won more seats than it would have had it contested on its own.

“Let the JI find out its true worth now,” says Jalil Jan. “It will soon know where it stands.”

The JI for its part believes that had it not been for its own well-organised party machinery, the JUI-F would not have achieved what it did — staking a claim to the top slot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Further, it nurses suspicions about which way the Maulana’s cookie might crumble. A wary and suspicious Munawar Hasan is more inclined towards Imran Khan and, at a lesser level, towards Nawaz Sharif.

In fact, it was the fear of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that prompted a flurry of political engagements between the JUI-F and the PML-N on one side and between the PML-N and the JI on the other.

COMMON ENEMY: The JUI-F and PML-N see the PTI as a common enemy and both set about thwarting its ascendancy by attempting to reach an understanding on seat adjustment in the province. This did not happen, though, despite several rounds of meetings; both sides blame each other for the failure. The PML-N believes the JUI-F was too ambitious and too demanding, basing its claims on its performance in the 2008 elections. It won 12 seats in the province then, but counting the number of their runners-up and candidates that clinched third position, the number of seats the JUI-F figured it could stake a claim to was more than 70.

“That was unreasonable on the part of the JUI-F,” maintains PML-N leader Iqbal Zafar Jhagra. “In 2008, we did not have candidates on many of the seats, but we were still willing to clinch a deal with the JUI-F on the basis of some give and take.”

The JI engaged the PML-N and the PTI at the same time. Munawar Hasan’s party boycotted the 2008 polls, a decision party leaders admit cost them dearly (a party task force criticised Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s decision to boycott the polls, noting that the party would have to contest polls if it wanted to be part of parliamentary politics).

A party with a committed cadre, the JI has, on account of its poll boycott, seen some erosion in its traditional stronghold in Dir. Also, it needs to hang on to someone else’s coattails — in this case the PML-N or the PTI — to become relevant electorally and politically.

But Jhagra says that the JI, like the JUI-F, also demanded more than its fair share in terms of seat adjustment. “The JI wanted adjustments on a 50-50 basis,” he reflects. “Besides, it wanted seats in Hazara, which is our stronghold.”

The PTI was slow in finalising its list of candidates and when it did, belief in an overwhelming victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa pre-empted a seat adjustment with the JI. “They had their own internal problems,” says the JI’s Prof Ibrahim about the PTI.

It may seem odd but religious politics apart, the three parties — or any combination of two — would have made natural allies, at least in the context of present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata that are beset with violent militancy. They have identical views and similar vision with regard to engaging with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the army’s engagement in the tribal areas.

By the same measure, these four parties — the JUI-F, the JI, the PML-N and the PTI — stand to benefit from a beleaguered Awami National Party (ANP) hounded by the TTP on the one hand and haunted by its poor performance at the helm of the provincial government on the other.

The PML-N, the JUI-F and the PTI, by all reckoning, will be the major beneficiaries in an electoral contest whose rules, say some analysts, have largely been set by militants targeting the ANP. And that, they say, is the key factor dissuading these parties from getting into an alliance or a seat-adjustment formula.