February Issue 2008

By | News & Politics | Published 13 years ago

Considering its stunning success in the 2002 general elections in the NWFP and the adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) could receive a shock when the results of the February 18, 2008 polls are announced. The fractious six-party religious alliance is in no position to repeat its performance.

The electorate in the NWFP voted in record numbers for the MMA in the October 2002 general elections. The scale of its win was unprecedented. It obtained 45% of the votes in the province and, in certain districts, its share was more than 55%. MMA’s spectacular victory can be judged by the fact that as runner-up, the PML-Q was way behind, with only 13% of the votes in the Frontier.

This was the first time since 1946 that a party or an alliance contesting under one election symbol, won enough seats in the NWFP to form the provincial government. It was believed by the voters that the MMA-led government would be strong and stable.

The voters had great expectations of the MMA government. They hoped that the religious parties’ coalition would find it easier to implement its manifesto owing to its comfortable majority in the NWFP assembly. They expected them to enforce Shariah in the province, govern in a simple manner, end the well-entrenched ‘VIP culture’ and do away with protocol, as promised by its leadership in their election campaign. Other expectations included fighting corruption, highlighting and solving issues concerning the common people and forcefully opposing President (then General) Pervez Musharraf’s pro-US policies. The so-called ‘wish-list’ was endless and all those who had voted for candidates fielded by the religious alliance were expecting great things to happen in the next five years of the MMA rule.

The MMA leadership and its candidates were wholly to blame for raising the expectations of the people to an unrealistic level. During the election campaign, they made unbelievable promises and the people believed in them, due to the pious reputation they enjoyed as clerics. They promised to turn the Governor’s House into a university, hold their cabinet meetings in the historic Mahabat Khan Mosque in old Peshawar and go to their offices and the provincial assembly on bicycles. They said the era of the Khulfa-i-Rashideen, the early puritan rule of the four great caliphs of Islam — Abu Bakr, Umar, Usman and Ali in the Islamic state of Madina — would be revived. They pledged to enforce the Shariah to serve as the panacea for all ills in the Frontier. Soon after winning the polls, the MMA legislators vowed to declare Friday as a holiday instead of Sunday, do away with co-education, put a halt to obscenity in the print and electronic media, and reform interest-based banking. There was no end to the promises that were made, and the voters haven’t forgotten that.

There are quite a few factors that will now impact the MMA’s electoral chances. One is the incumbency factor, as the electorate will judge the alliance in terms of its five-year performance in the previous government. Most observers believe it to have been unsatisfactory, and judging by their present mood, it seems that the voters feel the same way. Ruling parties or coalitions in Pakistan have seldom met the expectations of the people, and the MMA is no exception. Provincial governments, at odds with the centre, are further handicapped due to lack of cooperation from the federal government, and this happened in the case of the MMA as well. Eventually, the MMA had to make compromises and even bail out President Musharraf by supporting the 17th constitutional amendment, indemnifying all his illegal and unconstitutional actions, in return for the survival of the provincial government in the NWFP.

The second factor behind the public’s disenchantment with the MMA is the disunity in its ranks. The six component parties of the MMA have yet to coalesce into a disciplined alliance. They are constantly bickering over both petty and major issues. The two major parties in the alliance, in particular have been publicly voicing their differences and working at cross-purposes. By boycotting the upcoming elections, the Jamat-e-Islami (JI) has taken a position that stands in complete variance with the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), whose leader Maulana Fazlur Rahman has made it clear that he is ready to contest the polls at any cost. People also find it strange and hypocritical that the Maulana and the head of the JI, Qazi Hussain Ahmad are anxious to keep the MMA intact despite acute differences. This is due to their urge to reap the benefits of the unity of religio-political forces. By staying together, they are seeking the vote of the religious-minded in an attempt to avoid blame for the disintegration of the MMA.

The four smaller MMA components have unhappily pulled along with the JUI-F and the JI, while complaining that they are ignored in the decision-making and sharing of the fruits of power. These include Maulana Anas Noorani’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Professor Sajid Mir’s Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith, Syed Sajid Naqvi’s Millat-i-Islami and a faction of the Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam-Samiullah, (JUI-S), whose leader Senator Maulana Samiul Haq was expelled for violating the MMA’s discipline. All these parties are still formally part of the MMA but the issue of participation in the elections has caused friction in their ranks and some of them have been talking to non-MMA parties to reach some kind of seat adjustment in the upcoming polls.

Many pro-MMA voters are unhappy with the leadership for its failure to enforce Shariah in the NWFP. This was a promise made by the MMA in the 2002 election campaign, getting it most of its votes. Though a Shariat Bill was adopted by the provincial assembly and the Hasba Bill too was passed after much controversy but the people didn’t see any change in their lives. Rather, the lack of positive change in the province brought the MMA a bad name, and its leadership is being accused of having misled the electorate. On another note, there definitely was a change in the lifestyle of the MMA lawmakers, who became rich and started driving expensive vehicles. Many voters had supported them because they belonged to a low-income group and maintained a simple lifestyle. This is an important factor that is pulling the voters away from MMA candidates.

Though anti-US sentiment is still strong in the NWFP due to the American military presence in neighbouring Afghanistan and its blatant interference in Pakistan’s affairs, the electorate may not trust the MMA again to be a representative voice in the opposition to the US or President Musharraf. Rather, they may back other parties such as the PML-N and even the ANP to forcefully represent their anti-US feelings.

The spate of suicide bombings, violence perpetrated by extremist elements and the deteriorating law and order situation is also contributing to the unpopularity of the MMA and other religio-political forces. They are considered by many to be close to the militants and are blamed for not taking action against them. The insecurity along with the shortage of flour, as well as other commodities has primarily affected the electoral chances of parties allied to President Musharraf.

The JI boycott will deprive the candidates fielded by the MMA, mostly members of Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F, of crucial votes in the elections. The JI members will not vote and other party supporters wanting to cast their ballots will not support the JUI-F and other MMA candidates. Instead, along with the JI activists, they would ensure the defeat of the MMA nominees to make the point that the alliance is incapable of winning elections without their participation in the electoral process.

As things stand now, one could forecast that there will be a split mandate in the NWFP. Incidentally, the province would revert to a coalition government and parties with conflicting agendas will have to join hands to govern the NWFP. The MMA would be the bigger loser in the elections, even though the split mandate would open a window of opportunity for it to become a part of the new coalition government. The PPP, the ANP and the PML-N would win more seats than their share in the 2002 polls and their gains would come primarily at the expense of the MMA.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.