Islamist parties face drubbing in Pakistan vote

February 11, 2008

Supporters of Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party rally in Peshawar, 28 Jan. 2008/stringerAn important question in the Pakistani general election and provincial elections coming up on Feb. 18 is how the Islamist parties there will fare. These parties, which usually scored below 10 percent in the past, shot up to a total 17 percent of seats in the National Assembly at the last election in 2002. They also won power in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and shared power in Baluchistan — the two provinces that border Afghanistan and have been most destabilised by the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in the region.

Zeeshan Haider, senior correspondent in our Islamabad bureau, visited the NWFP capital Peshawar to gauge the voters’ mood. Here’s what he found :

Pakistani voters are expected to succeed where President Pervez Musharraf has failed, pushing back the Islamist tide and throwing out of power political clerics governing Pakistan’s violent northwest.

“God forbid, I will never vote for mullahs,” said Saif-ur-Rehman, a bearded stall owner in Qissa Khawani, a famous bazaar in Peshawar, before rushing for prayers at a mosque in the provincial capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Parliamentary and provincial assembly polls set for February 18 will take place against the backcloth of a Taliban and al Qaeda campaign to destabilize President Pervez Musharraf.

For all the revulsion over almost-weekly suicide attacks, conservative religious folk of the area have more immediate concerns, like lack of jobs, rising food prices, power outages and gas shortages that left them without heat over the winter.

The bureau also reports on a survey by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute showing that 75 percent of Pakistanis want Musharraf out. Another poll by the U.S.-based group Terror Free Tomorrow showed falling support for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Comparing its latest findings to its previous nationwide survey in August 2007, it said:

In August, 46 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of Bin Laden — that’s down to 24 percent now, while al Qaeda has dropped from 33 to 18 percent, the Taliban from 38 percent to 19 percent, and other related radical Islamist groups from nearly half of the Pakistani public with a favorable view to less than a quarter today.

Here’s a Reuters factbox giving the essential details about the election and a report in the Karachi daily Dawn about the Terror Free Tomorrow survey.

Falling support for radical Islam doesn’t mean that Pakistan’s tense border regions are necessarily getting safer. On Saturday, a suicide bomber killed over 20 people at an election rally near Peshawar by the Awami National Party, a secular party for Pashtuns — the same ethnic group the Taliban comes from. Here’s our video report:

The video also shows a demonstration by lawyers in Islamabad who have been campaigning against Musharraf since the president first tried to depose former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry last March. Musharraf dismissed Chaudhry in November in a move his critics say aimed to block the court from declaring his election as president unconstitutional. The leader of the lawyers’ movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, was released in early February after three months of house arrest. Undaunted, he repeated the call for Musharraf to go and he was arrested once again.

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[…] We expected the Islamists to lose but that doesn’t make the result any less interesting. The Islamist parties won only about 1 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, a precipitous drop from the 17 percent they scored in the 2002 vote. One crucial factor here is that opposition parties like the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League were allowed to run, in contrast to the 2002 poll that the then soldier-president Pervez Musharraf restricted to”friendly” parties. The conspiracy theory in Pakistan was that Musharraf made sure the Islamists advanced in order to make himself indispensable to the United States, the argument being “if you drop me, they’ll take my place”. […]

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