Sunday, December 23, 2007

Why Pakistan’s Islamic Parties are Struggling for Support

This report in the Washington Post should put to rest any fears that a Taliban-style cleric may emerge as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan following its January 8 elections.

A recent survey shows that only 4 percent of Pakistanis intend to support the religious parties in the upcoming elections.

The results of the last Pakistani parliamentary election in 2002, the high-water mark for the Islamic parties of Pakistan, took many political analysts by surprise. The MMA (Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal), a then newly-formed, broad coalition of religious parties captured not only 12 percent of the national vote but also won control of the provincial government of NWFP (North-West Frontier Province is one of Pakistan’s four provinces).

A number of factors explain the short-lived political success of Pakistan’s democratically-aligned mullahs.

The Incumbency Factor

In 2002, the Pakistani public had hoped for real change when they voted for MMA. They were fed up with both the military which refuses to stay within its barracks and the corrupt, secular parties. The religious parties lacked such a condemning record because they had never really been tested in political office before. After having served for the past five years, the MMA’s record proved to be no different from that of the opponent parties they had criticized. For the most part, they failed to deliver on their vow of ‘clean government and improved citizen services’.

Rising Islamic Militancy

The religious parties have been hurt by the fact that they have either acted indifferent towards the growing insurgency threat in NWFP or quietly supported it. Common Pakistanis caught between the cross-fire of radical Islamic hardliners – such as Maulana Fazlullah of Swat – and the Pakistani troops fighting them are highly resentful of both the spreading Talibanization and the sharply deteriorating law and order situation.

Increased Competition

In the upcoming election, MMA faces stiff competition from Pakistan’s two main, freshly-invigorated opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and Pakistan Peoples Party. Both parties’ leaders, former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, were exiled in 2002 but are riding a surge of popularity following their respective successful returns to Pakistan this past year.

The MMA Splits

The religious parties simply failed to agree on a unified campaign strategy for the January 8 elections. While MMA President Qazi Hussain Ahmed called for a boycott of the upcoming elections, which most think will be rigged, one of the major religious parties, Jamait-ul-Ulama-Islam (JUI) decided to contest them anyway. The five-year old testy coalition between the religious parties unraveled and took much of the support for the Islamic parties down with it.

The Musharraf Stigma

Following their parliamentary success in 2002, the religious parties formed an alliance government with President Musharraf’s PML-Q party. The MMA committed the blunder of continuing to support the dictator even as his popularity took serious and repeated hits this past year. JUI’s tacit support to Musharraf to get him re-elected President for yet another term in October 2007 may very well have been the last nail in their coffin.

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