Religious parties fail to leave mark in Pakistan election

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By Naimat Khan
The mainstream religious-politico parties faced major setbacks in Pakistan’s general elections despite forging an alliance to consolidate the rightwing vote. Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) — an alliance of prominent mainstream religious parties including Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) and Jamat-e-Islami (JI) — did not even secure half the number of votes it got in the 2002 general elections.
In the last elections, the MMA bagged 63 National Assembly seats, besides forming a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The alliance, however, only won 10 National Assembly seats this time, with 10 seats in KP, nine in Punjab, one in Sindh, and none from the largest Punjab province.

LAHORE: Aug 06 – Activists of Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) passing through Mall road during protest rally against alleged rigging in General Elections 2018. ONLINE PHOTO by Sajid Rana

In Karachi, where JI formed two city governments in the past and was always a runner-up to popular Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the party has moved much further down the list. The MMA only won one provincial assembly seat in the Lyari-PS-108 constituency of Karachi.
The major setback for the religious alliance, however, was in KP where its president Fazlur Rehman, Vice President Sirajul Haq, former Chief Minister Akram Khan Durrani failed even to win their native seats.
Fazlur Rehman, who secured 45,457 votes from NA-38, was defeated by Ali Amin Khan of PTI who received 80,236 votes. In NA-39, though the margin is not as big as NA-38. Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh of PTI defeated Fazlur Rehman with 55,110 votes. Fazlur Rehman got 40,760 votes in the constituency which saw the lowest turnout in Pakistan of 3.44 percent.
The JI chief Sirajul Haq, the second most important figure in the alliance, was defeated by PTI’s Muhammad Bashir Khan in Haq’s home constituency NA-7 by 16,977 votes. Durrani, who got 106,820 votes from his home constituency in Bannu — NA-35 — was defeated by PTI Chairman Imran Khan who won 113,822 votes.
The MMA adopted a different approach by emphasizing civic issues on its campaign trail but could not win voters in the liberal PTI.
The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) and Milli Muslim League (MML) — the far right religious-politico parties — also failed to impress the electorate.
However, the newly formed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) secured a good number of votes, owing to its campaign exploiting religious sentiments in the matter of the blasphemy law.
The TLP, recently formed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a cleric widely known for his tirades and abusive language after the execution of Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, a police guard who killed former Governor Punjab Salman Taseer on Jan. 4, 2011, defeated Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in NA-246 where Bhutto faced historical defeat.
According to the official results issued by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), PTI’s Abdul Shakoor Shad secured the seat by bagging 52,750 (33.81 percent) votes. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari got 39,325 (19.30 percent) which was not enough to be runner-up. Ahmed Bakhsh of the TLP got 42,345 (20.85 percent) of the total number of votes.
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In PS-107, which falls under the same constituency, Muhammad Younus Soomro of TLP got 26,248 votes and won the seat. The TLP also won a seat in a district west of Karachi.
From NA-247, one of the upscale Pakistani constituencies comprising Defense, Clifton and the downtown Saddar areas of the city, the TLP’s candidate got 24,680 and stood second in the race where highly rated candidates of the PPP, PSP, MQM, MMA and social activist Jibran Nasir were in the race.
Although PTI candidate Dr. Arif Alvi won the seat from NA-24, analysts are surprised at TLP’s inroads in one of the city’s liberal neighborhoods. The TLP got thousands of votes from each of the constituencies in which it was contesting, and stood, second, third and fourth in most of the constituencies where dozens were in the race.
Tabish Qayyum, a spokesman for Hafiz Saeed’s MML party, said his party was only looking at gains.“Our initial goal was to be able to participate after constant delays and eventual refusal of enlistment. We were censored by the media, social media and there were constant notices from ECP hampering our campaign. We participated in these elections in a very complex situation, and with no previous history of vote bank; all we have is an opportunity to build up from this point,” Qayyum told Arab News.
“Our sole aim was to be recognized as a legitimate political party and refute the allegations of extremism.” The MML spokesman said this was a beginning and his party was satisfied. “We believe we have an avenue to play our role in the stability and progress of Pakistan and we will continue to serve the people.”
However, both the successful TLP and failed MMA are unsatisfied and say they will not accept the results.  The TLP chief, Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, in his video message after his executive council meeting Lahore, has threatened “to lay siege to the assemblies if his mandate is not given back.”
Fazlur Rehman, the MMA’s president, told the media after his alliance’s meeting in Islamabad that he would seek a consensus over a drive for outlawing the election.

Failure of religious parties
Analysts say the religious parties were never the top choice.“Religious parties have never received many votes and have always been more a nuisance than a popular phenomenon,” Husain Haqqani, former ambassador and author of “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military,” told Arab News.
Haqqani says their votes were cast for PTI this time. “Traditionally the establishment favored them to espouse hardline Islamic nationalism over Kashmir and Afghanistan against India and the US. That function is now being performed by the PTI,” he said.
Naufil Shahrukh, director of the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), says the ideals of the new generation of voters do not match the image of MMA, mainly because of the power politics of Fazlur Rehman.
“This phenomenon will increase in every upcoming election and apparently the share of religious political parties in Pakistan’s federal and provincial assemblies will continue to be eroded,” Shahrukh told Arab News.
Muhammad Ibrahim Qazi, a commentator and social activist, concurs with Shahrukh.
“According to recent studies, there are around 60 million millennials in Pakistan. The characteristics of these young men and women in descending order are being liberal, highly educated, narcissistic and self-seeking,” Qazi told Arab News, adding that historically the religious parties had a 21 percent vote bank that was cut down in size by 11 percent in 2002 when the MMA came to power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
“Later the polls indicated that this was dropped to 6 percent due to frustration and due to the lack of transformation, keeping in view the contemporary political challenges.”
People want to vote for religious parties but would comfortably move to a liberal side because the masses don’t want to undergo any kind of religious and moral policing, Qazi said.
The Allahu Akbar Tehreek party of Hafiz Saeed, who is accused of masterminding the 2008 attacks that killed 166 people in the Indian city of Mumbai, did not win a single seat. Neither did candidates linked to Sunni extremist group Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat. Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, which campaigns under the rallying cry “Death to Blasphemers” also failed to win any seats, although results indicate it garnered a large following across Punjab.

 

Allegations of rigging
The allegations of rigging in Wednesday’s election followed a bitter campaign in which Pakistan’s powerful military was accused of tilting the race in favour of Khan, and trying to erase democratic gains made since the most recent spell of military rule ended in 2008. The army has repeatedly denied any interference.
The EU Election Observation Mission, in its preliminary findings, said the electoral process was “not as good” as the 2013 election and campaign week featured a “lack of equality” that meant it was not a level playing field for all parties.
“Many of our interlocutors acknowledged a systematic effort to undermine the former ruling party through cases of corruption, contempt of court and terrorist charges against its leaders and candidates,” chief EU observer Michael Gahler told a news conference. The mission included 120 observers who visited 582 polling stations in all the provinces except Baluchistan.
Gahler said EU observers had not witnessed any military interference in polling stations they assessed.“On election day, polling was assessed as well conducted and transparent,” he said. “However, counting was somewhat problematic with staff not always following the procedures.”
He added later: “The credibility or the legitimacy of this process, that is for the people of Pakistan.”
The US State Department said it concurred with the observation mission’s conclusions that positive changes to the election framework were “overshadowed by restrictions on freedom of expression and unequal campaign opportunities” and shared its concerns about “flaws in the pre-voting electoral process.”