By Tilak Devasher
July 6, 2018
The July 25 elections in Pakistan are
likely to establish long-term trends that would be harmful for whatever little
plurality is left in the country. The electoral contest has been billed as
being between Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) — even though he is
debarred from contesting or holding a party office — and Imran Khan’s Pakistan
Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). However, the real story of these elections is the army’s
political engineering that has created the space for the electoral rise of the
hard-line religious right.
In an attempt to “mainstream” the “good”
Jihadis, Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar-i-Toiba (LeT) supremo, was allowed to set up
a political party — the Milli Muslim League (MML) — in August 2017. This would
have allowed cadres of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD)/LeT to contest the elections.
However, since the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) did not register the
MML as a political party, the LeT cadres will now be contesting under the
banner of the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), a registered political party. They
are set to contest as many as 80 National Assembly (NA) and 185 Punjab
provincial assembly seats. The candidates include Hafiz Saeed’s son, Hafiz
Talha Saeed, and son-in-law, Khalid Waleed.
Crucially, the ECP has no mechanism to
determine if any candidate is on the Fourth Schedule (involvement in terrorist
activities) of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997 and debar him from
contesting. Thus, one Qari Sheikh Yaqoob, a US-designated global terrorist and
member of the central advisory committee of the JuD, was able to contest a
by-election in Lahore in September 2017. It is, therefore, very likely that
several Lashkar terrorists would be contesting the July 25 general elections.
Equally shocking is that Ahmed Ludhianvi,
head of the rabidly anti-Shia banned sectarian organisation Ahle-Sunnat Wal
Jamaat (ASWJ, earlier Sipah-e-Sahaba), has been taken off the Fourth Schedule
of the ATA. His assets have been unfrozen, restrictions on his travel removed
and he is free to contest elections. The irony is that this development came on
the day Pakistan announced a 26-point plan against terrorist financing in order
to avoid being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). The
sectarian terrorists of the ASWJ will be contesting from the platform of the
Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party, since the ASWJ is banned. The candidates include the
Sindh president of the party, Aurangzeb Farooqi, whose nomination papers have
been accepted by the ECP even though he is on the Fourth Schedule.
The ASWJ is closely associated with the
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) that has been responsible for several large-scale
attacks in the country, mainly targeting Shias. It has also become an Islamic
State (IS) affiliate and the two groups have jointly carried out a number of
attacks in the past few years.
Another hardliner religious party in the
political fray is the Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), an electoral
front of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA). It was registered with
the ECP in July 2017. It burst on the political scene during a Lahore
by-election in September 2017 securing more votes than the Pakistan People’s Party
(PPP) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), reflecting voter disenchantment with the
mainstream political parties. Later, it consolidated itself by bringing
Islamabad to a halt when it staged a sit-in at the Faizabad interchange that
was lifted only after the army intervened.
All these parties are in for the long haul.
How many seats they actually win is debatable, though they could garner a
sizeable vote share. In the process, they could be “spoilers” in close contests
between the PML-N and PTI in Punjab.
For the long-term, what is significant is
whether these hard-line religious parties are able to occupy and even expand
the political space so far held by the mainstream religious parties like the
Jamiat-ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and the JI. These parties are also in the
electoral fray, having revived the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) alliance
crafted under Pervez Musharraf. The new groups, however, are far more
belligerent, intolerant and judgmental than the mainstream religious parties
and do not really believe in democracy, which they consider un-Islamic. Their
success in the 2018 elections and subsequent ones, even in terms of vote-share,
would make Pakistan lurch further to the right and choke the space for a
moderate and inclusive state. After all, the “mainstreaming” of terrorists
without de-weaponisation, de-radicalisation and re-education could have
disastrous consequences for the polity.
While India will have to deal with
whichever party comes to power, ultimately it will, as always, have to contend
with the army’s mindset. What needs to be watched is the depth and breadth of
the political footprint of the religious parties, especially the LeT. This will
have long-term implications for India.
Devasher is the author of Pakistan: Courting the Abyss and Pakistan: At
the Helm. He is a former special secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of
India and consultant, Vivekananda International Foundation