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Extremist Parties Call Shots in Pak Elections

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Hafiz Saeed

The arrival of Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League opens a new era in Pakistan’s politics. The ultra-right Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party finished third with 7130 votes, while Hafiz Saeed-backed Sheikh Yaqub came fourth with 5822 votes at the by-election at NA-120. The TLP and Yaqub combined secured almost 13,000 votes from an urban constituency….explores Rifan Ahmed Khan

Hafiz Saeed

In the latest act of protestation, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif  ​on October 4 ​assured US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of “zero tolerance” against religious extremism. But the US and the ​world community are worried about the troubled failure to fight religious extremism at home.

As never before, extremism is taking the shape of organised political parties, in time for the general elections scheduled next summer.

The big difference is that extremists are forming their own political parties and contesting elections on their own, often against those with whom they were aligned behind the scene. Now the fig leaf is off – they even fight their allies and benefactors.

Till the last election, extremists had no political legitimacy, but were in cahoots with all the right-of-centre parties. They were able to influence the 2013 polls by staging violence against the ‘secular’ parties, mainly the PPP, the ANP and the MQM. A hundred workers of the latter parties were killed in the run-up to the polls.

Dark portends are visible from the outcome of the bye-election to the Pakistan National Assembly in Lahore’s NA-120 constituency that ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to resign.

His ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz won the election with 61,000 votes to 47,000 votes , but by a much lower margin than the husband’s.  Amidst the jubilations over the victory, the ruling PML (N) virtually ignored the fact that two candidates, although they stood as independents but belong to extremist parties scored almost 13,000 votes.

PAKISTAN-LAHORE-MILITANT-LEADER-ARREST by .
Chief of Pakistan’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Hafiz Saeed (C, front) leaves after being detained by police in eastern Pakistan’s Lahore on early Jan. 31, 2017. (File)

This is an urban constituency with educated electorate and had always returned Nawaz. Independent candidate Azhar Hussain Rizvi from the ultra-right Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) party finished third with 7130 votes, while Hafiz Saeed-backed Sheikh Yaqub came fourth with 5822 votes.

The TLP and Yaqub combined secured almost 13,000 votes from an urban constituency. This presents a worrying challenge for next year’s general elections, but the political class in Pakistan that has held the extremists in fear and awe and has entered in to convenient, secret alliances to serve mutual benefits, has not shown much concern. It is vote bank politics at work and religious parties have votes they can transfer, by hook or crook.

Whichever the party in power, the ruling elite as a whole in Islamabad has time and again tried to convince the international community not only that has it done enough to curb terrorism and extremism but also that it has suffered great loss, including more than 60,000 lives and over US$100 billion financially.

Pakistan’s National Action Plan (NAP) — formulated after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014 — called for a ban on groups spreading hate speech and not allowing banned outfits to operate under different names. The rise of TLP and MML poses a challenge to the NAP objectives.

All this has come to naught. Pakistan army is bent on nurturing the religious elements as a pawn in the political game. And the political class, pretending to be above religious extremism, takes the cue from the military and goes along. Any hope of its fighting them has been dashed by the recent Lahore election.

The TLP is headed by Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a firebrand cleric and orator who is also an active supporter of Mumtaz Qadri. Qadri was a security guard who was hanged after murdering the Governor of Punjab Salman Taseer for alleged blasphemy — Taseer called the Blasphemy law a ‘black law’ arguing that it had nothing to do with Islam. Rizvi belongs to the Barelvi sect of Islam and has openly called for the execution of all blasphemers. Much of the TLP’s campaign revolved around an ‘Islamic form of governance’ and Mumtaz Qadri’s sacrifice. The number of votes bagged by its candidate has consequently raised many eyebrows in the country. The TLP now gears for the 2018 general elections and plans to field candidates throughout the country.

On the other hand, Hafiz Saeed — head of the notorious terrorist organisation Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) (also known as Lashkar-e-Toyaba) — fielded a candidate of his own in the by-elections.

ISLAMABAD, Aug. 1, 2017 (Xinhua) -- Shahid Khaqan Abbasi talks to media upon his arrival at the National Assembly before the election of the new prime minister of the country in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan, Aug. 1, 2017. Pakistan's National Assembly on Tuesday elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, candidate of the ruling party, as the country's new prime minister. (Xinhua/Stringer/IANS) by .
Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (Xinhua/Stringer/IANS)

Saeed, who has been sanctioned by the UN for his involvement with terrorist groups and activities, had announced the establishment of the MML in August this year, inviting critique from both home and abroad. Despite the Election Commission of Pakistan refusing to register his Milli Muslim League (MML) party, Saeed fielded Sheik Yaqub as a quasi-independent candidate endorsed by the MML.

Saeed’s entry into the political mainstream presents larger challenges for the civil–military establishment and ruling elite in the country. He has remained one of the major points of contention in attempts to revive India–Pakistan ties, with New Delhi always demanding the trial of Saeed and the bringing of him to justice. India alleges Saeed is responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks along with militant and terror activities in India’s Jammu and Kashmir.

Much of Saeed’s narrative is based on the ‘freedom’ of Kashmir and support of its indigenous movement against the Indian armed forces. Election campaign videos of the MML used India as an electioneering tool, calling on constituents to be loyal to Pakistan and become enemies of Modi. In another video, an MML/JuD member is seen asking people to vote for ‘Saeed and his mission’.

Ironically, Saeed’s candidate Yaqub was invited on mainstream news networks and given airtime to tell his side of the story in post-election analyses. Yaqub refused to admit that he was an MML candidate and stated he was only previously affiliated with the JuD, clearly seeking to maintain his ‘independent’ status. Little action has been brought against Yaqub and the political activities of MML, again placing question marks over Pakistan’s commitment to countering extremism.

The JuD has enjoyed a positive image among the poor rural class, especially in Punjab, mainly due its social work and charity conducted through Falah e Insaniat Foundation (FIF). The FIF is known for its prompt relief responses in remote areas that the civil administration find difficult to reach, along with collecting donations for charity. But the truth is these charity appeals primarily also being used to fund ‘Jihad in Kashmir’.

Saeed has also been previously accused of promoting extremism in poor rural pockets by opening religious seminaries, though he has rejected such allegations. For many in Pakistan, Saeed is a ‘messiah’ or the ‘only saviour’ for the Indian Kashmiris and their ‘struggle for freedom’.

Pakistan is pretending to change to the extent of distancing itself from the past. But this is at the best a camouflage, going by the domestic political scene. This is evident also from the defiant approach of the Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Aziz. There seems no way Pakistan can separate religion from politics.

BEIJING, May 15, 2017 (Xinhua) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at the Leaders' Roundtable Summit of the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) for International Cooperation at Yanqi Lake International Convention Center in Beijing, capital of China, May 15, 2017. (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang/IANS) by .
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (Xinhua/Lan Hongguang/IANS)

Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif recently argued that Saeed was “now a liability”, unwittingly betraying the fact that in the past, Saeed and his LeT/JuD have enjoyed state and military support. Due to these facets of Saeed’s image and public life, successive governments in power have found it difficult to either arrest or convict Saeed in any of the alleged cases taken up by India or the United States.

Active political campaigning from the MML, JuD and TLP raises major question marks over Pakistan’s seriousness in countering extremism and implementing its much-hyped National Action Plan.

If the likes of Saeed are allowed to operate in the country and carry out socio-political activities — even when the state claims to have him under house arrest —  it surely weakens Pakistan’s counter-terror case in the global arena.

In such a grim situation, it is hardly surprising that the recent BRICS summit, observers were surprised  — and Pakistan was shocked beyond wits — to see the BRICS nations issue a unanimous declaration indirectly chiding Pakistan and asking Islamabad to take concerted action against militant and extremist groups.

BRICS leaders used strong words – only they did not name Pakistan specifically, while naming Pakistan-based orgnisations. And this happened at Xiamin, the soil of Pakistan’s “all weather friend”, China.

To Islamabad, this move came as a surprise following the recent alignment of China and Russia with Pakistan on domestic and international issues. Even though China was quick in dismissing any ill-will towards Pakistan regarding the joint declaration, there was still a hidden message for Islamabad — Pakistan has to ‘do more’ to sell its counter-terrorism narrative abroad and to convince the international community of its efforts.

Pakistan has ignored this “do more” diktat for long and it is unlikely to “do more” when its government is headed by an ‘interim’ prime minister and when the elections are round the corner.

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