September issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

Religious parties, traditionally on the fringes of political activity in Pakistan, have now for the first time in the country’s chequered history combined to form an umbrella organisation encompassing six Islamic parties. After a low-key launch in Islamabad in June 2001, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), or the United Council of Action, are now actively campaigning on the streets in the wake of the polls, hoping to benefit from the vacuum of crowd-pulling leadership in the country’s two mainstream parties.

The alliance draws its strength mainly from the two Pashtun-dominated factions of the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), representing the Deobandi school of thought, and the Jamat-e-Islami (JI). Included within the alliance is also the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), the frontline organization of Barelvi Muslims — surprising perhaps given its opposition to Deobandi rituals. JUP support had declined in recent years with the formation of another Barelvi group, the Sunni Tehrik, which has nominated candidates against the MMA. The final two alliance members are the outlawed Shiite group, Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan, which has renamed itself Islami Tehrik-e-Pakistan, and the Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadis, a small group of Sunni Muslims.

In the 1997 elections, the religious parties won only a handful of seats both in the national and the four provincial assemblies. While the Jamaat-e-Islami boycotted the polls, the other groups failed to get their leaders elected to the Parliament, with Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maulana Sami-ul-Haq of the JUI faction, and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani of the JUP losing in their own constituencies.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, which once enjoyed a considerable vote bank in Karachi, has seen its support base dwindle over a period of years, with the emergence of the MQM. The US-led war on terrorism in neighbouring Afghanistan, and the failure of the religious forces to mobilise a mass protest against the government’s decision to turn its back on Islamabad’s one time ally — the Taliban — further exposed their impotence.

The government’s attempts to regulate and control religious schools and its actions against extremist and militant Islamic groups heralded a bad time for the hard-line Islamic forces, which were once very close to the military establishment. When President Pervez Musharraf announced the date for parliamentary elections, the Islamic groups had no choice but to bury their differences or face political obliteration. As the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and the Pakistan Muslim League joined hands to work together under the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), making the traditional alliance with PML defunct, the religious parties had to abandon old ideological differences in the name of political expediency.

The unification of the religious groups under the MMA, however, is unlikely to make a significant impact on election results, because the individual parties comprising the alliance enjoy only a limited support in scattered pockets of the country — and people’s support for one group is often cancelled out by their opposition to another alliance member. The two factions of the JUI enjoy some support in the NWFP and the Pashtun belt of the Balochistan province, but support for the JUP is almost non-existent in that area, while that for the Jamaat-e-Islami is very limited. The alliance, however stands its best chance in these very regions, which were at the forefront of the anti-US protests last year, and are known for their conservative and tribal structures. It is expected that the JUI and the Jamaat-e-Islami votes will make an impact on several seats in the NWFP.

In Punjab, it is expected that the mainstream political parties will continue to dominate electoral politics, and the MMA will be sidelined. In Sindh, the religious parties will not do any better than they have in the the past. The Jamaat-e-Islami and the JUP, which once had a substantive following among the Urdu-speaking people, especially in the urban areas, no longer enjoy the support of the local population.

Only a boycott by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) would allow for a modicum of success to the MMA in Karachi and Hyderabad. But the MQM, after boycotting the local bodies elections and handing the local government to the JI, are not looking to follow such a strategy.

Meanwhile, an analysis of sectarian preferences reveals that very few votes of the Shiite Muslims, who comprise 15 per cent of Pakistan’s population, are cast along religious lines.

For the majority of Pakistanis, the alliance’s hard-line on women’s rights, individual freedoms and their envisaged role of the media, economy and politics, are plainly unacceptable. But even on these issues, there is a lack of consensus within the alliance. The JUI factions are very orthodox, in sharp contrast to the relatively moderate Barelvi JUP and JI. Even on the political front, priorities differ. The JUI is more concerned about developments in Afghanistan, but for the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Kashmir issue is of vital importance. Barring the JUI, the remaining groups within the alliance have been opposed to Pakistan’s decision to side with the United States in its war against terror, not because they identify with the Taliban, but because of the powerful presence of Americans in the two Muslim countries.

The alliance has, on top of the contradictions in its ideology, failed to include in its manifesto any vision of the economy, education, health or other social and political problems. Analysts and MMA insiders say the deep political and ideological differences within the party will serve as its Achilles’ heel, and once the election is over, each group will try to wrangle a favourable position in the new setup, independent of the alliance. “There already has been a lot of bickering over the distribution of seats,” says a MMA member. Once the elections are over, the ideological and political differences are likely to sharpen further.”

The only consensus within the alliance, it seems, is not to confront the military-led government. Despite the fact that the groups have certain grievances against Musharraf, as an institution, the army is still close to the hearts of the rightwing groups.

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the JI leader, at a meeting of Islamic groups with the President in August, is reported to have complained to Musharraf about the army’s treatment of its erstwhile allies. However, the JUP, the JUI factions and the Jamaat have a history of cooperation with the military establishment, and there is a realisation within their ranks that despite serious differences on vital issues of Afghanistan and Kashmir, they cannot afford to antagonise the army. In addition, Pakistani security agencies allegedly hold details of corruption cases against many of the Islamic clerics — allies of the former Benazir Bhutto government. This, undoubtedly, has played a key role in the alliance’s stance .

Internal contradictions and lack of popular support aside, the absence of mainstream politicians in the MMA’s chosen constituencies will perhaps, contribute to the alliance’s main leaders managing to secure a token representation in the upcoming elections.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.