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Terrorist Turned Candidate: Pakistani Extremists Contest National Elections

FILE: The head of Pakistani militant organziation Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saaed (C) along with his newly formed political party Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek nominated candidate Chaudhry Saeed Ahmed (L), speaks to supporters in June.

Chaudhry Saeed Gujjar is a member of the Milli Muslim League, a radical Islamist party blacklisted by the United States as a terrorist group.

He is also a candidate in the country's July 25 national elections, vying for a seat in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. Gujjar’s bid to represent the capital, Islamabad, has been approved by the Pakistan Election Commission.

Gujjar is among an unprecedented number of religious extremists and members of militant groups running for seats in the national and provincial assemblies in Pakistan, which has long been accused of failing to crack down on extremist groups.

Numbering more than 1,500, the unparalleled presence of candidates from radical religious and militant groups among the more than 12,000 candidates overall has raised fears they could bring extremist ideologies into the political mainstream.

When Pakistan's election authorities refused to register the Milli Muslim League (MML) for the elections, Gujjar and other MML members entered the field under the banner of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek (AAT), another hard-line Islamist party in Pakistan.

"Groups that were refused registration by the Election Commission are now simply participating under another name," says Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, the head of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, an Islamabad-based think tank.

Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, waves to supporters as he leaves a court in Lahore on October 19, 2017.
Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head, waves to supporters as he leaves a court in Lahore on October 19, 2017.

The United States considers the MML to be a foreign terrorist group, calling it a front for the Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) militant group co-founded by U.S.-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million bounty on his head.

The United States and India accuse Saeed of masterminding LeT's 2008 attacks in Mumbai that left 166 people dead, an allegation he denies. LeT is an Al-Qaeda-linked armed militant group that is fighting against Indian control in the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir and was banned in 2002 after being linked to an attack on India's parliament.

AAT has more than 260 candidates contesting the polls. Its campaign posters feature Saeed’s face alongside their candidates and are emblazoned with the name of the MML, which has officially endorsed the AAT.

A street is decorated with flags and banners of political parties ahead of general elections in Rawalpindi on July 23.
A street is decorated with flags and banners of political parties ahead of general elections in Rawalpindi on July 23.

Gujjar, the candidate, rejects that he is a member of MML, although other candidates openly admit that AAT and the MML "are one party."

"The mainstream political parties have disappointed the people of Pakistan, and our aim is to bring real change," Gujjar told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.

Gujjar insisted that AAT is not an armed group and seeks a peaceful solution to the "Kashmir dispute." The majority-Muslim Himalayan region is divided between India and Pakistan. Each country claims the region in its entirety and have fought two wars over it.

Extremist Tickets

Lashkar-e Taiba is not the only extremist group suspected of running in the elections under the guise of another political party. Many of the militant groups deny exploiting the loophole, but a list of candidates published by election authorities suggests otherwise.

Supporters of the Rah-e-Haq party burn an effigy of Iran, Israel, and the United States during a rally in favor of the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Peshawar in January 2016.
Supporters of the Rah-e-Haq party burn an effigy of Iran, Israel, and the United States during a rally in favor of the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Peshawar in January 2016.

Sectarian groups such as the Ahle Sunnat Wahl Jamaat (ASWJ) – banned by the United States and Pakistan – are fielding candidates under the banner of the little-known Rah-e Haq party. The ASWJ was banned for allegedly being the political wing of the militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been allied with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and is responsible for the killing of hundreds of Shi'a. More than 150 candidates with former ties to the ASWJ are running with the Rah-e Haq party or as independents.

Muhammad Amir Rana, whose Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies has long tracked radical groups in the region, says that while banned groups have resurfaced under different names, their ideologies remain the same.

"These new entrants are still exploiting religion and religious sentiments to further their cause," Rana says.

It's a practice that Mehboob says should not be allowed.

"If a party is banned, it should not be allowed to contest under another name," he says.

Others suggest that while such parties are unlikely to sweep to power by using this method, their influence on the vote is potentially significant.

"By enabling these groups to contest elections, you bring toxic views into the political mainstream and risk legitimizing the types of ideologies that can spawn radicalization," says Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "That's a particularly bad thing in Pakistan, where society is already radicalized to a great extent."

'Political Motive'

Many extremist candidates were taken off Pakistan’s terrorism watch list by the caretaker government in place to oversee the elections. Election authorities say they have simply followed court orders. But activists say the courts are influenced by the country's all-powerful military, which has an oversize role in domestic and foreign affairs.

Over the weekend, protesters lined the streets outside the army headquarters in the city of Rawalpindi in a show of defiance. Demonstrators condemned the army and its spy agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, for alleged manipulation of the vote.

Many in Pakistan have criticized the move.

Pakistan People's Party Senator Raza Rabbani
Pakistan People's Party Senator Raza Rabbani

"The interior minister should reveal how [members of] banned organizations were allowed to contest the elections," Senator Raza Rabbani, a member of the Pakistan People's Party, said on July 16.

"How were the names of [members of] banned outfits removed from the Fourth Schedule?" added Rabbani, referring to the name of Pakistan’s terrorism watch list.

"People from the Fourth Schedule are being allowed to contest the poll," Senator Pervaiz Rasheed, a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), said the same day. "Be afraid of the day when those people will be present in this [parliament]."

Shamila Chaudhary, a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, says that the participation of extremists in elections could, in theory, offer them an incentive to abandon extremist views.

"But based on the extremist candidates running for office and their rhetoric, there is no evidence to suggest they will refashion themselves," says Chaudhary.

Kugelman suggests that the Pakistani establishment, dominated by the military, could benefit from extremists vying for office.

"The establishment hopes to use these groups as a tool to siphon off votes from the PML-N, which the military does not want to return to power," he says.

Opposition leader Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is seen by many as the military’s favored party. Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fell out with the military brass and the PML-N has accused the army of trying to deny it a second term. The military has rejected allegations that it is interfering in the vote.

Sharif was dismissed from office by the Supreme Court in July 2017 for allegedly concealing assets abroad and other corruption allegations. He denies any wrongdoing. Allies of the three-time prime minister, who was toppled in a military coup in 1999, have called the proceedings a political vendetta and suggested the army might be behind it.

Kugelman says the presence of extremists in the elections could have unintended consequences.

"Supporters of conservative parties like the PTI and PML-N may simply gravitate to these hard-line groups instead," he says. "In this sense, the establishment risks undercutting the electoral prospects of PTI, the very party that the establishment is likely trying to bolster at the polls."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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    Daud Khattak

    Daud Khattak is the managing editor of RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal. He is based in Prague and reports on social, political, and security issues in Pakistan.