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Religion’s Defeat in Pakistan’s Election

5 minute read
Simon Robinson/Peshawar

Two weeks after humiliating losses in Pakistan’s parliamentary elections, the religious parties that swept parts of the country in the 2002 poll are still coming to terms with what went wrong this time around. In a small, cold office in central Peshawar, ousted provincial assembly member Mohamed Zakir Shah goes through all his achievements over the past five years, including securing land for a hospital, building new roads and buying land for new schools in his constituency. His enthusiasm fades as he gets to the end of the list and Shah, 37, a member of the Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, a small party in the religious coalition that did so well in 2002, slumps back in his chair and shakes his head. “The people have not cooperated with me,” he says. “The job is difficult but it is also interesting. It is a good job if you want to help people but they do not always help you back.”

That’s for sure. Nationally, Pakistan’s religious coalition known as Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) slumped from 56 elected seats out of 272 to just six in the new assembly. They also lost big in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which they have run for the past five years. The reasons for their defeat lie both in the way they won in 2002 and in their failures since then. Victory in 2002 relied in large part on a huge groundswell of anti-American sentiment after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Many observers also suspect that the army and the government of President Pervez Musharraf, which helped put the grouping of disparate religious parties together, may have helped them at the ballot box. Since then, according to many citizens in the NWFP, the MMA has failed to deliver better services and, perhaps even worse, supported Musharraf in his hugely unpopular on-again, off-again campaign against militants along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

To add to those problems, the MMA split last year and some of its constituent member parties boycotted the latest polls. But even without that split, “they would not have won because of their performance as a government,” says Rafique Ahmed Ghuncha, an Islamabad-based politician who has followed NWFP politics for decades and who ran as an independent two weeks ago and lost. “All the promises of public works were broken and the conservatives [in the electorate] were unhappy that [the MMA] didn’t introduce shari’a law. They had failed.”

Former provincial member Shah agrees that the MMA did not deliver on all its promises but says that the government in Peshawar was hurt by the fact that most of its budget comes from Islamabad. Shah’s theory — shared by others in the MMA — was that Islamabad never wanted the religious parties to succeed for fear they would win more support in other parts of the country. “The people wanted to see big change but the federal government made sure it was small change,” he says.

That’s probably too conspiratorial, even for Pakistan. The man who won Shah’s seat, Alam Zeb, 46, a member of the secularist and nationalist Awami National Party (ANP), says the MMA have nobody to blame but themselves. “There was a lot of difference between words and action in the MMA government,” he says, before pointing to the outgoing government’s support of Musharraf’s anti-militant campaign as the single most damaging policy. “There is no doubt they were a B team of Musharraf’s and people didn’t like this.”

The ANP will now form a new government in the North West and may also join the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a large anti-Musharraf coalition in federal parliament. All three parties have said they will try to open up talks with the militants, whose violent attacks against state, military and civilian targets have killed hundreds of people over the past year. (Two suicide bombings in the past three days have killed at least 70 more). A spokesman for one of the myriad militant organizations said last week that his group would be open to dialogue. “We will solve all the problems through a jirga,” says the ANP’s Zeb, using the local name for tribal meeting. “We are Pashtuns and these people are Pashtuns and we will sit down and work out a solution.”

Of course the religious parties are largely Pahstun as well and their own attempts at dialogue didn’t get far over the past five years. And not all the militants are Pashtuns; some are Arab and central Asian fighters associated with al-Qaeda who are unlikely to be wooed by promises of meetings and talks. That’s not to say that talking with some groups might not work where force has failed. But it’s also plausible that the electoral defeat of the democratic wing of Pakistani fundamentalism might actually strengthen the hand of some Jihadists who believe that their cause can never win from inside the system. “This will certainly give an edge to those people who are not interested in the democratic process,” agrees Ghuncha. “Extremist forces can now put forward this argument.”

And the religious parties themselves? Even as they lament their setback, some have begun exploring ways to stay relevant. Indeed, the biggest party in the MMA met last week with leaders of the government-in-waiting in Islamabad to talk about a possible deal. “We decided to show unity and solidarity to pull the country out of [its] prevailing crises,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. Spoken like a true politician.

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