Composition by Soonhal Khan
Composition by Soonhal Khan

Does the surge of Islamic parties in the 2018 elections reflect a religious realignment in the country, is it a mere by-product of three-way electoral contests or is it the result of intervention from the extra-systemic forces?

These questions have arisen mainly with the electoral debut of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan which has emerged as the fifth largest party in terms of votes received. Similarly, around 2.5 million votes secured by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) also underscore the fact that there has been an overall upward trend in religious votes during this election as compared to the previous one. The share of votes polled by all the religious parties has been around 10 per cent in the 2018 elections whereas their tally hardly exceeded five per cent of the polled votes in the 2013 elections. This time round the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan alone has secured close to 2.2 million votes. It has polled almost 1.9 million votes just in Punjab — mainly in the heavily urbanised divisions of Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad. A large part of the rest of its support has been concentrated in the country’s largest urban centre, Karachi.

These figures raise an important question: did religious issues shape voter choices in this election? If they did, how will it impact public policy as far as the role of religion in politics is concerned? To answer these questions, we can focus on the electoral performance of three types of Islamic groups: the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, the recently revived MMA, and fringe elements such as the Rah-e-Haq Party and the Milli Muslim League.  

The electoral eminence of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan is the first and foremost indicator of the rise of religious vote. Entering electoral politics for the first time, it joined the election fray on the back of its November 2017 sit-in at Faizabad when it succeeded in forcing the resignation of the then federal law minister Zahid Hamid for allegedly including some controversial clauses in the Elections Act, 2017. The party ran a one-point campaign: it raised the issue of alleged threats posed to the finality of the prophethood by those clauses (even after they had been amended).

The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan represents a new, aggressive and militant face of Barelvi politics which has remained rather dormant since the 1980s. The rise of Deobandi-inspired militant jihadi groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, among others, had put traditional Barelvis parties – mainly various factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan – on a back foot till the late 1990s. This started changing when the post-9/11 discourse on Pakistan presented Barelvis as a soft face of Islam that was as much under attack from Deobandi militants as Shias and westerners were.

The watershed moment in the political trajectory of Barelvi groups in Pakistan came with the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer by one of his bodyguards, Mumtaz Qadri. The agitation following his execution on February 29, 2016 gave birth to the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah which spawned the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan as its electoral front.

In just one and a half years after Qadri’s execution, the party established its credentials as an emergent political force in a string of by-elections in 2017. It received further strength from its successful sit-in protest at Faizabad that showed the mobilisation potential of the issue of the finality of the prophethood. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan subsequently projected itself as the sole champion of the issue, accusing the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) to have worked against it.

Its focused canvassing helped the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan to become a major spoiler of votes for PMLN in Punjab. According to an exit poll conducted by the Gallup Pakistan, around 46 per cent of those who voted for the former in 2018 had voted for the latter in the 2013 elections. In Karachi, too, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan was able to garner a large number of votes from communities and neighbourhoods that would previously vote for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) whose defeat in at least some of the constituencies in the city can be put to this factor.

There is a lot of speculation that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan’s electoral significance is owed to the support it has allegedly received from the military establishment. Those who allege this point to the absence of any help by the military for the civilian government in putting an end to the Faizabad sit-in. The video of a senior military officer distributing cash among the departing members of the sit-in is also cited as an evidence of this alleged backing.

The other major religious group to have won note in the 2018 elections, MMA, offers a study in contrast. It failed to repeat its 2002 performance when it had won 60 seats in the National Assembly and formed the provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Maulana Fazlur Rehman, its chief at the time, also became the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. One of the major reasons for the MMA’s success in 2002 was its voter mobilisation against the American invasion of Afghanistan immediately after 9/11.

The current version of MMA was, indeed, weaker than its earlier avatar from the very beginning. One of its main constituents of the past – Maulana Sami-ul-Haq’s faction of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – chose to remain outside it. Even though it included both the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl and the Jamaat-e-Islami, two of the oldest religious-political entities in the country, it could not successfully resist a strong challenge from the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and from the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan in central Punjab and Karachi and could win just 12 National Assembly seats.

Given the separate organisational goals and distinct sectarian and doctrinal associations of its constituents, it remains an open question if the MMA will survive as a unified political entity after the election. Differences have already emerged within it on whether to hold protests against alleged election rigging or accept the poll results.

When put alongside the electoral performance of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, these MMA shortcomings suggest a major realignment of religious voters both in terms of their sectarian associations and the issues that mobilise them. This is likely to have a strong impact on public policy formulation as long as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan continues to agitate those issues.

Success also eluded the third major religious element that took part in the 2018 polls – constituting groups banned by the state at various points in time – though its political significance cannot be underestimated. These groups include the Rah-e-Haq Party, a new incarnation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and the Milli Muslim League that failed to get registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan due to its links with an outlawed militant organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba. It, thus, had to put up its candidate under the banner of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, a little known but registered political entity.

The Milli Muslim League first appeared on the electoral map in September 2017, a few weeks after the ouster of Nawaz Sharif as prime minister, when it famously contested the NA-120 by-election in Lahore and secured almost 6,000 votes. Even though it has failed to make an electoral mark in the general election, its participation in the polling process may help some of its erstwhile militant cadres and leaders to become a part of mainstream politics in the future.

The case of the Rah-e-Haq Party, which fielded candidates in as many as 70 National Assembly constituencies without success, is slightly different. The widely-circulated images of eminent political leaders seeking support from its associates suggest a significant political presence of its cadres in many constituencies.

In short, the 2018 elections show that the religious vote may have been marginal but it has worked as a balancer in crucial contests — tipping the balance in favour of one or the other of the two leading parties. It can also be argued that both the establishment and various mainstream political parties have tried to use religious actors for their own short-term electoral objectives in this election cycle without realising that by doing this they have only added to the long-term power of these groups. This quest for short-term political gains will only deepen Pakistan’s long range challenges of extremism, militancy and intolerance.

The writer has a PhD in political science and teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

This article was published in the Herald's August 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.