An 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 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”.
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.
The 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.”