Illustration by Soonhal Khan
Illustration by Soonhal Khan

The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of religious political parties, has been revived in anticipation of the 2018 general elections. The alliance consists of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUIF), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ahle-e-Hadith, Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan-Noorani (JUPN) and Tehreek-e-Islami (TI). Like any other multiparty electoral union, it is meant to maximise the number of seats its constituents may win at the federal and provincial levels to become viable contenders for power. Clearly the motivation behind MMA’s revival is electoral calculus, which is markedly different from the objectives that had led to its creation in 2002.

Back then, MMA was born out of the Afghan Defa Council and won 60 seats in the National Assembly to become the second largest opposition party after the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). It also formed the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and became a main partner in the government of Balochistan. Prior to this landmark victory, religious parties had never won more than six per cent of the vote share in the country; in 2002 this rose to nearly 11 per cent. MMA’s electoral success was attributed to its anti-American campaign rhetoric that resonated in the post-9/11 context. But it was also widely believed that, unlike PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, MMA was allowed to campaign freely, and choose its candidates unhindered, by the military government that was overseeing the election.

Although MMA’s performance in government proved to be uninspiring and ineffective, it was differences among its constituent parties that proved to be its undoing, with the alliance splintering prior to the 2008 elections that JI boycotted. JUIF, on the other hand, contested the election and joined the governing coalition with PPP. In 2013, JUIF and JI won only nine and three seats in the National Assembly respectively. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both parties ceded their traditional stronghold to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which swept the elections to form the provincial government. The last two elections, thus, have taught the religious political parties that there is strength in unity and that the only way to counter the inroads made by PTI would be to form an alliance.

The latest incarnation of MMA, with JUIF’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman as its chairperson and JI’s Liaqat Baloch as its general secretary, is in keeping with the previous domination of the two parties, both of which have historically drawn their support from the Pakhtun areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Noticeably absent from the alliance is Maulana Samiul Haq’s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUIS). There were reports prior to the Senate election that, in exchange for a Senate seat nomination, JUIS would form an electoral alliance with PTI. However, this did not come to pass as PTI dropped Haq’s name from its list of Senate nominees.

JUIS’s absence from MMA, however, indicates that the alliance’s electoral prospects in its own backyard may not be as bright as in the past. It is not clear whether PTI’s performance in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will be evaluated by voters negatively to the extent that it will be voted out of power in the next election. At the same time, MMA cannot place too much confidence in its electoral rhetoric of being an anti-corruption party, which is also how PTI is likely to position itself.

It is also important to consider other religious parties that are likely to chip away at the traditional vote bank of MMA parties. For example, consider the emergence of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a Barelvi group led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi; its main leader in Karachi used to be an active member of JUPN. Similarly, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen are poised to erode the vote bank of the Deobandi and Shia followers of JUIF and TI respectively. It will be more challenging for the new MMA to unite the conservative religious vote as it did in 2002 with these newer, more radical and aggressive political parties appealing to the same type of voters with even more hardline sectarian agendas.

This was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.