Pakistani voters turn to Islamic parties as alternative to Musharraf’s pro-American stance

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 25, 1423 2002-11-01


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 17, Sha'ban, 1423)

Muslims are so short of success stories these days that they are willing to clutch at any straw to beguile themselves. Take, for instance, the elections in Pakistan on October 10, in which an alliance of six “Islamic” parties surpassed even their own highest expectations. The strong performance of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA, ‘united action council’), has given rise to unrealistic expectations among its leaders and followers, as well as caused exaggerated fears among its detractors, both at home and abroad. True, the MMA secured 45 seats in the country’s National Assembly; a number of independent candidates have also pledged to join it, increasing its strength to 53. It also has an outright majority in the Provincial Assembly in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), as well as many seats in Balochistan. Like the other political parties and alliances, the MMA does not have a clear majority in the national assembly, yet it is expecting to govern not only in the provinces but also at the centre.

By securing seats even in the remaining provinces (Punjab and Sind) as well as in the federal capital, Islamabad, and the tribal area, the MMA has emerged as the only truly “national” party or alliance, although it is still unrealistic to assume that it now has the right to rule. Even if it were to assume power, it is very unlikely that it will be able to fulfill the pledges it made during its election campaign. The MMA has nominated Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jami’atul Ulama-e Islam, winner of the largest block of seats in the MMA alliance, for the post of prime minister. Liaquat Baloch, deputy amir of the Jama’at-e Islami, has been nominated for the post of speaker of the National Assembly.

Having secured about one third of the national assembly seats (53 plus eight from the tribal area, bringing its total to 61), the MMA’s electoral strength is comparable to that of the other two leading political parties or groups: Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e Azam group (PML-QA) has 77 seats, and Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) has 62. Whether the MMA enters into an alliance with other parties to form a coalition government or remains in opposition are not crucial questions. What it is important to understand is the nature of politics in Pakistan.

First, however, let us dispense with some immature political talk: that the MMA was promoted by the military regime in order to scare the US into supporting it, otherwise the MMA has little support in the country. Benazir Bhutto, the self-exiled leader of the People’s Party who was barred from contesting the elections because of corruption charges, has been most vociferous in making such allegations. She has also tried very hard to attract the west’s attention by painting everyone else as a fundamentalist or a threat to the US. She has cried wolf over the MMA’s strong showing, warning the US that the alliance is a reincarnation of the much-maligned Taliban, who have re-emerged in the volatile Frontier and Balochistan provinces. She is trying to convince Washington that only she can serve their interests, as if the elections were held to serve American interests, instead of Pakistani interests. We need to look beyond such self-serving pronouncements.

Three factors contributed to the MMA’s good performance. First, for the first time in Pakistan’s history several Islamic parties, representing divergent points of view, came together on a single platform, helping to consolidate rather than split the “Islamic vote”; the Jama’at-e Islami, an important component of the alliance, did not enter into an alliance with any secular parties or groups, as it always has before. Second, the military regime was so obsessed with defeating the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and his faction of the Muslim League (PML-N), that it failed to see an important segment of the political landscape, represented by the Islamic parties, emerging in the middle. Third, electoral support for Islamic parties was increased further by the strong anti-American feeling in the country, especially in NWFP and Balochistan, the two provinces bordering Afghanistan, which are most affected by the US’s military presence and operations. In fact, anti-American sentiment is widespread throughout Pakistan, for which the regime of general Pervez Musharraf must take the blame; he jumped headlong into supporting the US campaign against Afghanistan, arousing strong resentment among ordinary people. The MMA was the only alliance to express anti-American feelings, garnering public support as a result, but therein lies its difficulty as a part of government.

In fact, all Islamic parties that claim to represent the Islamic movement face this problem when they participate in electoral politics under a secular system. During elections they pledge to uphold Islamic principles; after the polls they are forced into painful compromises. Such are the pitfalls of secular politics. Both the Refah Party in Turkey and the National Islamic Front in Sudan have had this problem. The MMA is not likely to come out unscathed either; its difficulties are made worse by the fact that it is an alliance of six parties that do not have a common outlook. Of the six, three– two factions of the Jami’at-ul Ulama-e Islam and the Ahl-e Hadith– represent one trend (Deobandi); Jami’at-ul Ulama-e Pakistan represents the other pole, the Barailvi trend; Tahreek-e Islami represents the Shi’as, and the Jama’at-e Islami stands separate from them all. Both the military regime and all the secular parties will do their best to use these differences to divide the MMA.

Even if the MMA’s component parties remain united, the compulsions of secular politics will still force them into compromises. Within days of the election, leaders of the MMA were at pains to declare that they were not “radicals” and that they would act “responsibly.” Is adherence to Islamic principles irresponsible behaviour? How about the demand that American forces leave Pakistani territory: is this radicalism? That they are forced to backtrack by making such statements, despite their respectable if not “heavy” mandate, shows the pressure they face from the army and the secular establishment. They have to operate within the limits prescribed by the system within which they fought the election and did well.

The MMA’s leaders have also claimed that their electoral victory is the first step on the road to an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. Bringing about an Islamic revolution by elections is a new idea, one that can be articulated with a straight face by politicians only in Pakistan. Claims of ushering in an Islamic revolution make good rhetoric, but the realities in Pakistan are very different. The president, who also happens to be the army chief, is the real authority in the land, especially now that he has also given himself sweeping powers by a raft of constitutional amendments and the creation of a national security council. This is a body whose job will be to keep the politicians and parliament in check by the threat of dismissal, should they fail to toe the line laid down by the military.

Even without these powers, real authority in Pakistan has always rested with the army chief. In October 1999, when Nawaz Sharif tried to use his constitutional authority to dismiss Musharraf, it was the man with the “heavy mandate”, not the wielder of the stick, who lost his job. Pakistan’s army has rightly been described as the country’s largest political party. Then there is the overbearing presence of the Americans. They are the presence behind the Pakistani army.

The MMA leadership, no strangers to such politicking, will soon discover that their electoral victory is quite hollow. Even if they really do want to keep their promises, they will be prevented from doing so. Intense jockeying is already under way for the post of prime minister. A number of names have been mentioned: Amin Fahim of the PPP; Zafarullah Khan Jamali of the PMA-QA; even Farooq Leghari, a former president, who is now willing to be considered for the prime ministerial post. There are a number of other, less serious, contenders. All contestants to national assembly seats believe that they will win; every loser immediately demands a recount or another election because he or she was deprived of victory, and every winner believes that he or she is the most qualified person to become prime minister.

Yet the entire effort is futile because the prime minister has already been neutered by the vast powers arrogated by the president to himself; similarly, the parliament will have to operate according to his diktat. Foreign and defence policies have been declared no-go areas for the incoming government; it has also been made clear that no tinkering will be permitted with the economic agenda, dictated by the International Monetary Fund. So the new prime minister and his cabinet will simply be the military’s yes-men. So why do these people jockey for positions that have little or no effective power or authority?

Even a neutered prime ministerial post is preferable to none at all; to be seen in the corridors of power has its own charm. There are also other perks, dating back to the days of the British raj, in which the rulers were given elaborate protocol. Vast fleets of cars– Mercedes, no less– with sirens blaring and lights flashing, accompany their entourages. The feudals covet such trappings of power in order to enhance their status. They must be seen to be above the plebs for whom they claim to govern Pakistan.

Those who hope for real change in Pakistan and other Muslim countries will have to wait until the systems, not merely the faces, change. Elections are not the answer to Pakistan’s problems, even if they help to throw up a few new faces occasionally.

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