Last month’s by-election in Pakistan’s National Assembly-120 constituency came as a surprise when independent candidates Shaikh Azhar and Shaikh Yaqoob grabbed more votes than the mainstream, liberal Pakistan People Party (PPP), the country’s third-largest political party. Although Azhar and Yaqoob contested the election as independent candidates, however, both were backed by the auxiliary hands of religious groups, notably the Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah Party (LYRP) and Milli Muslim League, the new political wing of Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD). LYRP was recently established by a hardcore cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, in an effort to pay homage to Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated former Governor Punjab Salman Taseer over blasphemy charges. JuD, meanwhile, is a UN enlisted terror outfit and its leader Hafiz Saeed has a $10 million bounty imposed by the United States.
Both the parties are not registered in the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) thus they opted to run their candidates – Azhar for the LYRP, Yaqoob for JuD — as nominal independents. ECP has turned down the registration application of these two parties on the recommendation of Interior Ministry. Despite that, two parties combined for enough votes to easily surpass the combined votes of the PPP and Jamat-i-Islami (JI), another Islamist party with four seats in the National Assembly ( considered less intransigent than of the other Islamic organizations). None of the other parties, however, came close to the votes gathered by the victorious Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or its main rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
At least two examples from the recent past prove that experiments to bring militants renouncing violence into the political fold have been unproductive. First, when the Swat Valley was in the jaws of militancy and unrest, government struck a “peace deal” with Taliban leaders, agreeing to implement Shariah law in the valley if the militants would honor a ceasefire. The hope was that deal would eliminate disorder and the valley would return to normalcy. The deal however, was revoked only after two months after failing to bring the desired results. The Taliban struck back with anti-state activities, while government responded by intensifying military action.
The second example of mainstreaming armed groups came in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The government, backed by the army, launched a reconciliation drive and has redoubled efforts to bring peace to the province, especially after Balochistan became the centerpoint of China’s recently launched $62 billion China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) project. The effort didn’t prove worthless, as quite a few of the mainstreamed groups have relinquished militancy and vowed allegiance to the constitution and rule of law. But, despite the state’s seriousness and its extravagant proposals, several groups — the Balcoh Liberation Army and Baloch Republican Army (BRA) in particular — are still operative and have refused offers extended to them. Last month, the BLA released a video on social media showing the group attacking army personnel, resulting in the deaths of four soldiers. Moreover, the group’s activities have occasionally been seen on foreign soil, especially in Switzerland. Last month Pakistan summoned the Swiss ambassador to lodge a protest against BLA activists who flew anti-Pakistan posters in Geneva.
In the wake of previous bitter experiences, allowing hardcore Islamic organizations to establish political wings in Pakistan raises questions about the state’s seriousness toward curbing militancy under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP). NAP surfaced in the wake of the deadly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, where 132 children and nine teachers were brutally killed. At least four clauses of the NAP (5, 7, 11 & 15) are exclusively related to the threats emanating from religious extremism; however, none of them has been implemented in true spirit.
LYRP emerged out of a desire to avenge Qadri’s death sentence, which was given after due process of law, whereas MML seemingly formed with a more traditional political goal: to peel off the right-wing vote bank of the ruling PMLN. Sectarian differences between the two (MML is a subsidiary of Deobandi while LYRP follows the Barelvi school of thought) may well intensify sectarian violence, which already runs deep in Pakistan.
Getting inspiration from the vote banks of MML and LYRP, another religious group, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC), also announced it would contest the 2018 polls by forming alliance with their allies. Comprised of different sectarian schools, PUC was established in 1988 to promote sectarian harmony; however, there has been no slowdown in sectarian strife.
Indeed, there is no harm in allowing all factions of society to be part of the electoral process, but groups that have a tendency of sabotaging the constitution, democracy, and rule of law should have to make certain assurances before political doors are opened to them. Currently, a divide looms among policymakers on whether to let such groups be part of electoral process or halt their attempts to make inroads into society, this time in the name of politics. After all, Pakistan is a signatory to UN agreements that bar terrorists from working freely; allowing UN-enlisted persons to enter politics would further humiliate Pakistan’s image.
There have been reports that Pakistan’s Army, not its civilian leadership, is keener to give a political role to militant linked-groups. The Army believes that military action alone is not the solution to tackling terrorism and extremism; instead, amnesty and reconciliation is also a viable remedy. Major General Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), in a recently held press conference was asked about the Milli Muslim League. He responded that taking part in politics is the right of every Pakistani. Ghafoor, however, did not comment on the military’s role in any such strategy to mainstream Islamic groups.
Islamist parties may not get sufficient votes to form a government in the next general election but their campaigns in Pakistan’s cities and streets would disperse their ideological agenda, which largely rests on jihad and conservatism. Additionally, their entry into the political arena could pressure the government to avoid taking steps contrary to their ideology and stay away from modifying controversial laws, such as the blasphemy law. The government has already faced stern criticism for not implementing NAP in its true spirit. The emergence of outlawed religious groups as political parties may create more problems than it solves.
Muhammad Daim Fazil is Lecturer of International Relations at University of Gujrat, Sialkot Campus, Pakistan. He was July 2016 Visiting Fellow at the Henry L. Stimson Center Washington D.C. He tweets @DaimFazil