By Zahid Hussain
June 27, 2018
THE Islamic parties that have experienced a
steep decline in their electoral clout over the years are now going into the
2018 elections hoping for a better outcome. The revival of the, albeit
truncated, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) is aimed at regaining some lost
political space for the religious elements. The coming together of the
squabbling religious groups would certainly add to their electoral weight. But
can the Islamic political alliance offer a viable alternative to the voters
thus making inroads into the existing power matrix?
Essentially, a united front of the JUI-F
and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), the two most powerful religious groups, the MMA
may have a significant support base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but its influence in
other parts of the country is debatable. The differences between the two major
component parties over key political issues and their distrust of each other
will make it more difficult for the alliance to repeat its 2002 success in KP.
There is no indication as yet of the MMA making its presence felt across the
A major challenge for this mainstream
Islamic coalition comes from the rise of more extremist sectarian groups
dividing the religious vote bank. The emergence of the newly formed
Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an extremist Barelvi group, is likely to hurt
the MMA the most. It is quite evident that the rise of religious extremism
benefits sectarian groups more than the mainstream Islamic parties whose share
of votes has fallen significantly since 2008 with the disintegration of the
A conglomerate of six Islamic parties, the
MMA saw its spectacular rise to the country’s political centre stage after the
2002 elections held under military rule when the alliance swept into power in
KP. It was the first time the squabbling religious and diverse sectarian groups
had come together to achieve the most significant electoral victory yet for the
Islamic parties, though they were mainly limited to KP and Balochistan. The
alliance may have failed to make any impact in the two other, larger provinces,
but its success in the most sensitive border regions changed local political
dynamics and also caused international concern.
In KP, it was almost a revolution through
the ballot box when in many constituencies, local mullahs defeated powerful
political dynasties. This electoral success of the MMA, owed both to the
domestic and external political factors arising from post-9/11 events. The role
of the military regime may have helped prop up the alliance, but there were
other more critical elements that contributed to the MMA’s sweep.
Undoubtedly, the Islamic parties,
particularly the JUI, traditionally have had a significant political support
base in the region that was further strengthened in the 1980s during the Afghan
‘jihad’ against the Soviet occupation. That was also the period of the rise of
Islamist militancy under the patronage of Gen Zia’s military regime. The Afghan
war carried long-term consequences not only for the region, but also for the
country. The rise of the radical Taliban regime in Afghanistan too had a spill
over effect in the border areas further changing the political landscape in KP
and the adjoining areas.
While unity among the Islamic parties was
an important factor, the success of the MMA in the 2002 parliamentary elections
came, in fact, on the wave of strong anti-American sentiments following the
invasion of Afghanistan. ‘It is a war against Islam’, was the slogan that
struck a chord with voters. The Islamic parties successfully exploited the
religious sentiments calling people to vote for the Holy Book. The symbol of
the book allotted to the alliance candidate came in handy in mobilising
religious support. The field was also left open for them because of the
military government’s action against the PPP and PML-N.
But the five-year MMA rule in KP failed to
deliver. The persistent power tussle between the JUI-F and the JI was a major
reason for the disaster. The religiously motivated rule encouraged more radical
groups to increase their influence. The rise of the Pakistani Taliban movement
in Swat and other parts of the province happened with the tacit support of the
Inevitably, the alliance fell apart after
the end of the MMA government in 2007. The JI’s decision to boycott the 2008
election dealt a further blow to the party. Internal party problems such as
young and more radical elements joining global jihadi groups like Al Qaeda have
also been the reason for the party’s falling electoral support base. The JUI-F,
however, remained active in the electoral field.
In 2013, both the JI and JUI-F fought
elections separately, putting up candidates against each other. While the two
parties cut into the religious vote bank, they together polled more votes than
the PTI. The two parties received 20.38pc votes against the PTI’s 18.99pc.
Following the 2013 elections, they followed different political tracks. While
JI joined the PTI in the coalition government, the JUI-F remained engaged in a
bitter fight with the KP government.
Given expediency and the realisation that a
divided house could only damage their electoral prospects, they are back to an
alliance of convenience. The decision of some smaller parties to sit out may
not affect the reactivated MMA much. But the political environment has also
changed hugely from what it was in 2002. Meanwhile, the PTI has encroached on
the religious vote bank. But the united front including the two major Islamic
parties with their respective strong support bases may present a formidable
challenge to the PTI in KP.
Still, the irreconcilable difference
between the two parties on some major policy issue such as integration of Fata
with KP may seriously affect the MMA’s electoral prospects. The TLP which is
putting up candidates in many constituencies could also spoil the game for the
MMA. With its extremist slogans, the group evokes wider emotional appeal among
the less-educated populace. Although the TLP is essentially a Punjab-based
phenomenon, it has also developed something of a support base in KP.
The revival of the MMA may improve the
electoral prospects of the religious elements in KP and Balochistan but it is
highly unlikely that it would have any significant impact in the other
Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.