Wednesday, 06 November 2002

PAKISTAN'S RELIGOUS PARTIES: A THREAT TO MUSHARRAF'S POLICIES?

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By Andrew Holden (11/6/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The MMA captured 19% of the seats in the National Assembly and a controlling majority of the Provincial Assembly of the Northwest Frontier Province, and became the largest party in Baluchistan. This is a major electoral progress for religious parties that traditionally remained on the fringes of politics. A first reason for this success is that the various religious parties of the country for the first time consolidated into an electoral alliance.

BACKGROUND: The MMA captured 19% of the seats in the National Assembly and a controlling majority of the Provincial Assembly of the Northwest Frontier Province, and became the largest party in Baluchistan. This is a major electoral progress for religious parties that traditionally remained on the fringes of politics. A first reason for this success is that the various religious parties of the country for the first time consolidated into an electoral alliance. Instead of running against one another for the same voters, six parties joined forces despite their sectarian and personal differences, which makes a world of difference in the first-past-the-post electoral system Pakistan uses. Second, Pakistan's traditional parties, the Muslim League (PML-N) and the People's Party (PPP), were each tried in government twice in the 1990s, and failed miserably, with their rule marked by corruption and mismanagemeent. With widespread dissatisfaction with these parties and with the local Pashtun Nationalist Awami National Party in the NWFP for similar reasons, the MMA was the untried alternative. Third, General Musharraf's crackdown on the PPP and the PML-N further leveled the playing ground to the MMA's benefit. Fourth, the MMA possessed larger financial resources than its rivals and a superior organization, and could attract voters with the distribution of food etc. Fifth, the lowering of the voter's age from 21 to 18 years benefited the MMA, which has actively targeted the young population. Sixth, the MMA only really won votes in the NWFP and Baluchistan. Incidentally, the largest population growth is in these provinces and hence young voters are overrepresented there. Thirdly, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of the NWFP were given the right to vote for the first time, adding several million voters from the most fiercely religious part of the country to the final count. Seven of the MMA's 53 seats were elected from the FATA. The MMA's victory in the NWFP and Baluchistan is only partly explained by the proliferation of religious schools (madrassahs) in the region since the 1980s. More importantly, there is a collective feeling of angst among the population of the areas bordering Afghanistan based on very concrete grounds. They liked the Taliban because it greatly facilitated the trucking business. In Taliban times, the truckers, almost all of which are Pashtuns, paid one fee at the border and could safely drive all the way through Afghanistan to the Iranian or Turkmen borders. Now, the fragmentation of Afghanistan means less security and more checkpoints and payments to each warlord. In addition, the Afghan war has drastically cut the cross-border trade and smuggling of consumer goods that makes up the largest economic activity of the underdeveloped border areas, where little other economic production takes place. The militarization of the previously porous border has meant government control of the smuggling business, and as a result, people feel a tangible economic detriment of the government's alliance with the U.S.

IMPLICATIONS: Musharraf's government now has to deal with the MMA as a considerable force in politics. As for arguments that the regime boosted the MMA to portray itself as irreplacable for the west - what one could call a "Tansu Çiller syndrome" - these make little sense. The government had its own party, the PML-Q, which it thought would win the elections. It came out the largest party with 76 seats, but only by a small margin. If the government was to rig the elections, it would clearly rig them in favor of the PML-Q, not the MMA. The results were hence not a design of the regime, but a miscalculation that is now has to live with. As for the implications, the MMA is not simply a bunch of violent radicals, and it is certainly not monolithic. It consists of six parties of different denominations. The Deobandi contingent is made up of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Islam's two wings, the JUI-F and the JUI-S. It has a Barelvi party, the Jamaat-e-Ulama-e-Pakistan; a small Wahhabi group, the Jamiat-Ahl-e-Hadith; a Shi'a group, the Islami-Tehreek-Pakistan, and finally the non-denominational Jamiat-Islami. The differences between these groups are large - most would not even accept a member of another group as the leader of prayer. Most markedly, the JUI is anti-Shi'a, as is the JAH. The two main groups in the alliance are the JUI-F of Fazlur Rahman and the JI of Qazi Hussain Ahmad, which are long-time rivals. The MMA is clearly a marriage of convenience, albeit a remarkable one, and is more than likely to splinter in practice once parliament convenes. Fazlur Rahman and Qazi Hussain have already begun negotiating separately with other parties for the formation of a government. For Pakistan's foreign policy, the MMA's success will likely complicate an already delicate situation, although the extent of the MMA's influence is dependent on its doubtful cohesion and on the role it will play in a future government. The government took a great provocative step by allying with the U.S. against the Taliban. It has also enacted a religious education ordnance, begun a process of registering madrassahs, regulating the presence of foreign students in madrassahs (requiring their home governments to accept their attendance) as well as soft-pedaling the Kashmir issue, all policies that are contrary to the religious parties' interests. The government is in any case likely to pursue these matters carefully, without antagonizing the religious parties. It is already facing an internal front with the terrorist organizations linked to Al-Qaeda, in addition to the tensions with India in the external realm, and needs to avoid the opening of a third front.

CONCLUSIONS: The MMA's electoral success clearly signifies the coming to maturity of the dynamic that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The last twenty-five years have been marked by investments in Jihad in Afghanistan and the madrassah culture in the border areas, heavily sponsored by the U.S. An Islamic ethos in defeating the Soviet Union was also the result of these policies. Yet in comparison, the MMA's success is at least equally conditioned by more worldly factors. This indicates that the religious parties, especially given their internal differences, will remain manageable in Pakistan's political scene.

AUTHOR BIO: Andrew Holden is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, California. He was raised in a family of missionaries and medical practicioners, and grew up in Gujranwala and Nowshera. He is fluent in Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto.

Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.

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