The outcome of the by-poll for NA-120, a seat vacated due to the disqualification of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, sprang up a few surprises including an unexpected 14 percent vote by two debutant religious-political organisations, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) and the Milli Muslim League (MML), Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD) political front.
The TLY got 7,130 ballots and the MML received 5,822 votes, ending up as distant third and fourth respectively in the by-poll. At the same time, the abysmal performance by two mainstream political parties, the secular-liberal PPP pocketing 1, 414 votes and the pan-Islamist JI bagging a meagre 592 votes, was equally shocking.
With less than one year left to the parliamentary elections in Pakistan, such electoral trends have raised a lot of interest among political pundits. Against this backdrop, it is important to deconstruct the impressive performance of the two new religious-political parties and how this could affect democracy in Pakistan.
Historically, religious-political parties have done poorly in Pakistan’s electoral politics. They have never been voted to power at the national level. At best, they have formed coalition-governments, as junior partners, at the provincial level. At worst, they have remained political-pressure groups (for the better part of their political career) using their street power to protect their religious interests.
While the PTI has eroded the PPP’s power base in Punjab, the votes that the TLY and MML have attained in Punjab constitute the right-wing vote bank that usually had a pro- PML-N tilt. However, due to a number of factors, this vote-bank has now been split, shrinking the PML-N’s power base in Punjab.
First, in 2016, the PML-N fell out of favour with the Sunni-Barelvis, a sub-sect of the Hanafi school of thought, following the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the self-righteous assassin of the late governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, over the latter’s efforts at reforms in the strict anti-blasphemy law. The top leadership of the Barelvis in Pakistan praises and hails Qadri as a hero. The PML-N’s decision to implement the court’s order of hanging Qadri alienated the party’s right-wing voters. The Barelvis hold Nawaz Sharif responsible for Qadri’s execution. The TLY was born out of the Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri, which changed and entered politics after his execution.
The second is the changing character of the PML-N’s politics from centre-right to centre-left. Since the 1980s, the PML-N has done right-wing politics in Pakistan and for the most part of the last four decades, an overwhelming majority of the Barelvis has voted for the party in return for protecting their religious interests. However, Qadri’s execution eroded the trust between the PML-N and the Barelvis, rupturing the voting arrangements between the two.
Further, it created a distinct political consciousness among the Barelvis along sharp sectarian lines. They felt the need to enter politics to safeguard their religious interests. Hence, the erstwhile apolitical Barelvi groups have been asserting themselves politically and ideologically using Qadri as a symbol and the ‘anti-blasphemy law’ as a rallying point. Interestingly, the political trajectory adopted by the TLY starkly resembles that of Allama Nasir Abbas’s Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), a Shia political party that entered mainstream politics in March 2013.
Third, the collapse of leftist politics in Pakistan also accounts for the impressive electoral performance by these newly formed religious-political parties. The resultant vacuum has been filled by the likes of the TLY, MML and others. For instance, the PPP, which was the face of liberal-secular and anti-establishment politics in Pakistan, has transformed. During the 2008-2013 period, the PPP tried to appease the establishment to stay in power by handing over internal security and foreign policy to the army. Moreover, following Taseer’s assassination, the party backed off from its liberal-progressive agenda to stay on the right-side of the public opinion.
The PPP’s opportunistic politics under the garb of so-called ‘politics of reconciliation’ cost it dearly in the 2013 general elections. The party’s power-base was reduced to the stature of a regional party in Sindh and if the NA-120 by-poll result is any guide, its public support is likely to shrink further in the 2018 elections.
Fourth, since early 2016 the PML-N has been urging action against India and Afghanistan-focused militant groups to avoid international isolation and sanctions. The PML-N government has been under immense pressure from the US as well as the UN’s Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to take action against JuD and others. To mitigate this pressure, the PML-N placed the JuD’s head Hafiz Saeed under house arrest in January, barred the organisation from collecting public donations, and placed it on the watch list of the interior ministry.
The religious-right perceives the PML-N to be soft on India. Besides, Sharif’s regional policy of normalising ties with India and non-interference in Afghanistan, the policy pronouncements of bringing the Mumbai attackers to justice and registering an FIR against the perpetrators of the Pathankot airbase attack are unpopular among the right-wing voters. The MML has jumped into the political foray to consolidate the anti-India vote-bank against Sharif. The launch of the MML is also part of the JuD’s so-called mainstreaming from a violent-militant organisation to a peaceful-political party.
It can be argued that these emerging political trends are part of the overall evolution of Pakistan’s political landscape both within the mainstream and within religious-political parties. Unfortunately, Islamist politics in Pakistan is evolving along sharp sectarian lines and moving away from pan-Islamism. The TLY’s impressive performance is not an exception but a norm. In the recent past, the Sunni Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat’s (ASWJ) new political-front Rah-e-Haq Party has performed remarkably in Karachi’s by-elections and local government elections. Similarly, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s son Masrur Nawaz also won a seat in the Punjab Assembly during a by-election from the Jhang district.
The support base of mainstream political parties in Pakistan seems to be eroding gradually due to complacency and out-dated policies resulting in a gap between them and their constituents. The traditional and redundant political strategies pursued by these parties cut no ice with the country’s well-informed and demanding electorates. Neither can the PPP endlessly milk sympathy votes in the name of the Bhuttos and their sacrifices for democracy in Pakistan nor can the PML-N take its vote-bank in Punjab for granted. Similarly, the PTI will have to offer more to its young educated voters beyond Imran Khan’s personality and the clean-image of the party in order to emerge big at the national level.
Democracy is not just about its sustenance and the ritual of peaceful power transitions but also about democratic and liberal values (the real essence of a democratic system) such as pluralism, rule of law, accommodating difference of opinion, respecting opposing values and belief systems and peaceful co-existence. As such, the democratic system in Pakistan is not under any direct threat, but democratic values may be in peril if the mainstream political parties do not mend their ways.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
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