Pakistan bucks apparent Islamist trend in elections

February 21, 2008

Pakistani voters in Karachi, 18 Feb. 2008/Athar HussainAn interesting thing happened in the Pakistani elections this week. A country where radical Islamism has been on the rise in recent years went to the polls and voted Islamists out of office. In North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the most “Talibanised” part of the country, an avowedly secular Pashtun party — the Awami National Party — emerged as the largest party by far. This bucks what seemed to be a trend in the Muslim world, i.e. the freer the election, the more chances the Islamists have. Think back to late 1991, when the Algerian military cancelled the run-off round of elections after the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) took a strong lead in the first round. In more recent years, elections in Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza have shown Islamists doing well at the polls. In a very different context, Turkey’s “post-Islamist” AKP has gone from strength to strength thanks to the ballot box.

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 Maulana Fazlur Rehman, 3 March 2006/Asim Tanveerprecipitous 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”.

In NWFP, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) alliance of Islamist parties won only 11 of 99 seats in the provincial assembly after governing there with a majority in the assembly for the past five years. One of the most prominent Islamist leaders, the Taliban-friendly Maulana Fazlur Rehman, was defeated in his NWFP home town of Dera Ismail Khan in his bid for re-election to the National Assembly. In Baluchistan, the other province with Islamists in government, the MMA won only five of the 65 seats in the provincial assembly.

Election poster for the Awami National Party, 16 Feb. 2008/Mian KursheedThe big winner in NWFP was the Awami National Party (ANP), which went from 7 to 31 seats. The ANP was founded by Wali Khan, a secular left-winger whose father Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a legendary figure among the Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as today’s Taliban. Known as the “Frontier Gandhi,” he was an ally of Mahatma Gandhi who opposed the partition of India and creation of a “Muslim homeland” in Pakistan. A suicide bomber killed at least 16 people at an ANP rally in Charsadda, near Peshawar, only days before the election. In short, this party comes as close as could be to the opposite of the religious parties.

The greatest achievement of this transition to democracy is the rout of religious extremists who wanted to plunge Pakistan into anarchy,” wrote Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times. “It is the rise of liberal democracy … that will help solve the problem of religious extremism in Pakistan.”

Ali Eteraz has taken a close look at what this means:

The success of the ANP in the face of the Islamist programme … shows that one way of defeating Islamism is to offer a potent and viable alternative narrative. The ANP does that in the form of Pashtun nationalism.

In my opinion, the secular resurgence has far more to do with material concerns than ideological ones. Ordinary Pakistanis didn’t vote for the ANP because they suddenly became hip to Thomas Jefferson or because they became persuaded by some blogger in Birmingham. They voted for the ANP because they want clean water. If the ANP fails to deliver the essentials of life – and simply uses nationalism the way Islamists use Islam – then they will be replaced. If western interests want to maintain the secular resurgence, they are going to have to make sure that these groups do not fail. At the moment, though, I don’t see any discussion about this in our press.

2 comments

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I wouldn’t be too sure the Islamist parties have lost,as you seem to think.Also I would disagree with your description of Maulana Fazalur Rehman as a taliban friendly politician.
The actual position is that in Pakistan politics there was a split amongst the Islamists,and the real diehard Islamists -the ones who have the support of the core Islamists -led by Maulana Qazi bycotted the elections.It is therefore hardly a surprise they got so few seats.
As far as Fazalur Rehman is concerned he is viewed as a quisling amongst the die hard Islamists for his co-operation with President Musharraf.The Islamists consider he sold himself out to the President by getting him out fo numerous tight situations in the parliments where the maulana was the leader of the opposition.
Even the seculiarists[PPP,Muslim League (Nawaz),ANP and MQM] got their votes not because of any inspiring ideology or party manifesto; infact the vote for them is a vote for the restoration of an independent judiciary as well as a vote against Musharaff’s self serving and anti-democratic policies. This is also the reason real reason why Fazalur Rehman(and his other party members also) failed to get elected from their home towns.Nothing brings this out more clearly then the fact that despite massive pre-election rigging and foul play in favour of the candidates fielded by Musharraf’s party,they won only about 10 percent of the seats.
This does not mean the seculiarists cannot rout the Islamists.Pakistan had always been more seculiar than Islamist -till the late general Zia aided by the CIA’s aim of driving the Russian’s out of Afghanistan created,funded and trained the Jihadist and taliban phenomina.This served Zia’s purpose in that he used these Jihadists to counter the appeal of the popular seculiarist’s(PPP) to shore up his own appeal.Musharraf finished what ever genuine voter backed counter to Islamists remained by doing away with PML(nawaz group).
By sacrificing her life Shaheed Benazir Bhutto has given a fresh inspiration to the seculiarists;so much so that even arch rivals like PPP and PML(Nawaz) co-operated with each other both in the pre-election as well as the post election phase;and the Pakistani voters gave the overwhelming support.
So the recent Pakistan elections should in no way be understood to mean that the Islamists are done in.The true situation is that the seculiarists have finally found their voice in their elected representatives .But should they fail to deliver on the expectations of the people namely a restoration of the illegally removed judiciary as well as freedom from a dictator whom they have so openly rejected – the Islamists will be back within six months-and in renewed strength.

Posted by Hassan Abbas | Report as abusive

Hassan, you make some very good points here. I think we agree a lot more than you seem to believe. Let me go through your arguments one by one:
1. The fact that diehard Islamists consider Fazlur Rehman a quisling for cooperating with Musharraf does not negate the fact that he basically is friendly towards the Taliban. On a scale of T-friendly, T-neutral or T-hostile, he surely belongs on the T-friendly side. Looking at him just in terms of what the diehard Islamists may say obscures the larger picture of where he fits in the political spectrum. We want to show this wider picture to the reader, not just the microcosm of Islamist politics.
2. The fact that Maulana Qazi boycotted the election certainly meant the Islamist vote would be lower. But was this just because of a split among the Islamists? I didn’t get into this aspect because it would have taken me into a whole other direction, i.e. asking whether his decision to boycott was not also inspired by the clear indications the Islamists were going to take it on the chin this time. Was this possibly a case of thinking it was better to stay away so nobody could see how badly they would fare at the polls than enter the fray and come out with the expected bloody nose?
3. I agree with you that the vote for secularists was a vote for a real alternative and against anti-democratic policies. I would also add it was a vote of protest against corruption and failed economic policies. I would not have included Ali Eteraz’s comment to this effect if I didn’t agree with his analysis.
4. Your final paragraph is also one I can agree with almost 100% (I disagree with the six month prediction, which I think is way over the top). Ali made much the same point in his analysis, which I thought was eloquent enough that I didn’t have to put ditto marks underneath it.
5. You started your comment saying “I wouldn’t be too sure the Islamist parties have lost, as you seem to think.” Well, if you don’t interpret those results in these elections as a loss, I don’t know how you define the word. We’re talking about the elections that took place on Feb. 18. The Islamist parties lost them plain and simple. So I disagree with your opening premise. At the end of your comment, however, you modify this to say “the recent Pakistan elections should in no way be understood to mean that the Islamists are done in.” That’s taking a longer-term perspective, and there I agree with you fully. They can come back, and the fact that I ended up with Ali’s quote saying so indicates this is the parting message I wanted to leave the reader.

As I read it, your whole argument supports my opening premise, that these elections bucked an apparent trend towards Islamist victories at the polls. This analysis is often used as an argument against holding free and fair elections in some Muslim countries. What I wanted to point out is that this does not have to be the case. The voters of Pakistan have shown this and it is now up to the politicians, as you rightly say, “to deliver on the expectations of the people.”