Religio-political parties struggle to command a major chunk of the Pakistani votebank. Why then do they play an oversized role in the country’s politics?
The combined vote share of religio-political parties in the 2018 elections in Pakistan was 9.58 per cent, slightly lower than what it was in the 2013 polls and much lower than the 11 per cent they bagged in 2002. The 2002 tally was the highest the Islamist parties have ever received in polls. In 2018, the performance of religio-political parties was weak because there were a lot more Islamist parties competing. Apart from the established ones, two new religio-political outfits emerged: The Milli Muslim League (MML) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). Their entry into electoral politics was encouraged by the establishment to usurp the “religious vote” of the Centre-Right PML-N so that Imran Khan’s Centre-Right PTI could benefit. None of the new religio-political parties could win many seats, but that was never the “plan.”
Whereas the MML could not perform in the manner in which some expected it to, the radical Barelvi TLP not only succeeded in usurping PML-N’s Barelvi vote, but also gobbled up the secular MQM’s lower-middle-class Barelvi votes in Karachi. This certainly aided PTI in challenging the PML-N in Punjab and the MQM in Karachi. Historically, Islamist outfits in South Asia are not built as electoral parties. They emerge as evangelical groups or residues of movements. And even when they do convert into electoral outfits, they struggle to do well in polls because the non-religion-based mainstream parties pragmatically co-opt their causes and rhetoric.
Plus, the religio-political parties are closely associated with one Islamic sect/sub-sect or the other. This limits their appeal to voters from other denominations. Some are even understood to have developed a sect of their own, as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) was once accused of doing. Islamist groups in South Asia developing political interests is a 20th century phenomenon rooted in the Khilafat Movement of 1919-1924. When the European theory of the State began to attract Centrist and Leftist groups in South Asia in the early 20th century, Islamist groups, too, began to be attracted by it and started to theorise the possibility of creating an “Islamic state.” But most of them could not find the means or the need to devise any electoral tools to achieve such a State. They often saw electoral politics as contrary to their Islamist dispositions. That’s why the demand for a Muslim-majority State Pakistan arose from a Centrist and quasi-secular All India Muslim League (AIML). What’s more, almost all major Islamist parties opposed this demand on one pretext or the other. But they could not neutralise AIML’s plans because, by the 1940s, it had not only become an experienced electoral entity, but it was able to juxtapose its “modernist” Muslim nationalism with rhetoric from their Islamist opponents. These opponents had no plan to stall the League through electoral means.
The Islamist parties remained in an electoral limbo during the first 20 years of Pakistan but they did retain their evangelical and agitational disposition, in an attempt to influence the ideological character of the new country. But even during the years of indirect elections (1957-58) and hybrid democracy (1962-69), they could not devise any effective electoral tools and send members to the first two constituent Assemblies, and the two Assemblies that came into being during the Ayub Khan dictatorship.
Yet, just before the country’s first direct elections in 1970, parties such as JI were claiming that they would sweep the polls. But the opposite happened. From 1947 till 1972, Islamist parties operated from outside the Assemblies and had no significant influence on policymaking, other than through the threat of agitations. Though 18 members from three religio-political parties managed to enter the 1972 Parliament, they were no match for the mainstream electoral parties. That’s why, in 1974 and then again in 1977, Islamist parties once again banked on their penchant for agitational politics to undermine a regime. With the sidelining of some major parties during 1977, the religio-political parties were given space to develop their electoral skills and expand constituencies. Separate electorates were introduced to favour them. But the idea, on the part of the military regime, was to manoeuvre them in a manner that would help the Zia dictatorship ward off challenges posed by the Opposition parties.
Most of them became tools of the establishment, without whose backing they believed they could not become effective electoral entities. In the 1990s, the PML-N continued to co-opt religious rhetoric of the Islamist parties. However, the self-proclaimed “enlightened moderate” Musharraf decided to aggressively sideline the PML-N and the PPP during the 2002 polls, by creating the conditions required for the religio-political parties to win in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This was when these parties bagged 11 per cent of the vote but this could not halt the return of the PPP and the PML-N after the 2008 elections.
In the eyes of the establishment, the mutable utility of the old religio-political parties has been exhausted. With growing mistrust between the PML-N/PPP and the establishment, the latter “allowed” the growth of new religion-based groups like the TLP and the MML. In an environment where the State was at war with religious militancy and with the sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) still hanging over the country’s head, the idea was to quietly nurture new religious groups, not to help them win, but to aid the pro-establishment PTI by way of scattering PML-N’s religious votebank. The fate of the religio-political parties in politics is thus likely to continue being dependent on their utility to the establishment.