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Pakistani Islamist Parties Scramble To Unite Before Elections

FILE: Supporters of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam − Fazl (JUI-F) during a protest in Karachi, August 2014.
FILE: Supporters of Jamiat Ulema-e Islam − Fazl (JUI-F) during a protest in Karachi, August 2014.

Pakistan’s numerous Islamist political parties are scrambling to unite in an electoral alliance before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.

The effort aims to unite the now divided vote bank of religious political parties that mostly play a secondary role as coalition partners to mainstream political parties. Despite failing to win elections, these groups have proved themselves a vocal lobby capable of dictating legislative agendas, shaping public opinion, and blocking liberal policies and reforms.

Jamiat Ulema-e Islam − Fazl (JUI-F), one of the largest Islamist political parties, is now trying to unite disparate Islamist groups divided along sectarian and ideological lines.

Maulana Shuja-ul Mulk, a former JUI-F lawmaker, is part of his party’s committee to reach out to leaders of fellow Islamist parties. He says he is optimistic about reviving an alliance that scored significant electoral victories in 2002.

“Unlike the temporary alliances and seat adjustments [we carried forward with various political parties in recent years], this alliance will be based on the ideological affinity of religious political parties,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We want to unite all of them on a single platform.”

Former lawmaker Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, a senior leader of Jammat-e Islami, says that unlike some botched efforts to unite the Islamist political parties in recent years, the current effort has more chances of success.

“One positive thing is that these religious parties have always presented a united front on important religious questions inside the parliament,” he noted.

Jammat-e Islami is distinguished by its modernist approach to organization and discipline. Unlike most conservative Islamist parties, it is not controlled by a clerical establishment or leading dynasty. Yet its hawkish policies have attracted few votes.

While Jammat-e Islami opposes sectarianism, most Islamist political parties in Pakistan are sectarian in nature because they follow or propagate one particular Muslim sect.

The solidarity of these parties has also been tested by the ultra-radicalism of the Taliban and other militant groups who have publicly ditched elections and participation in mainstream politics in favor of an armed struggle to impose their worldview on the country. In recent years, senior clerics and Islamic scholars have been targeted in militant attacks.

Some sectarian outfits are dedicated to targeting members of rival sects. Pakistan’s Shi’ite communities, estimated to be up to 20 percent of the country’s 200 million population, has been in the crosshairs of Sunni extremists, who frequently claim attacks against Shi’a.

Academic Qibla Ayaz is a keen observer of Islamist politics in Pakistan. He says the move is prompted by the realization that Islamist political parties are seen as declining even in traditional strongholds.

“It is unfortunate that we never achieved a stable political arrangement in this country and politicians have been denied the opportunity to establish a steady political system,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Frequent military interventions in the form of martial law had sabotaged the political process, which paved the way for new characters to assume prominent political roles [at the cost of the older ones].”

Much of the Pakistani political class has been on tenterhooks for the past couple weeks as the country’s top court looks into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family. If found guilty of wrongdoing, Sharif could lose his office, which would trigger a political crisis prompting a new political alignment.

While allied with Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, respectively, JUI-F and Jammat-e Islami are visibly engaged in creating another option for securing their political fortunes.

The two allied with four more Islamist parties to form the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or United Council of Action, in 2002. Amid accusations of manipulation by the military government at the time, the alliance swept the polls in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

A new alliance might fail to repeat the spectacle but will definitely add to the Islamist parties’ influence in Pakistani politics.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Mashaal correspondent Muhmmad Imran’s reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.