In September, a Gallup Pakistan survey revealed that the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) chief Saad Hussain Rizvi was Pakistan’s second most popular leader after former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Rizvi’s approval rating was 38 percent compared to Khan’s 60 percent.
Three-time Prime Minister and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) supremo Nawaz Sharif stood slightly behind Rizvi with 36 percent public approval. Nawaz is returning to Pakistan on October 21 after four years of self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom. Presently, Khan is in jail and on the wrong side of the military establishment, while Nawaz is struggling for political relevance due to the economy’s poor handling by his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif’s coalition government.
Against this backdrop, Rizvi’s soaring popularity ahead of general elections expected to be held in January next year brings into sharp focus the role of religious-political parties like TLP in determining the electoral outcome. Likewise, it is important to unpack factors accounting for Rizvi’s popularity and whether it would also translate into a solid vote bank or not.
Historically, Pakistan’s religious-political parties have done poorly in Pakistan’s electoral politics, except for the 2002 general election, when the six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, formed governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Rizvi’s fame potentially provides important insights into the evolution of Pakistan’s religious-political landscape as well.
Before looking into Rizvi’s popularity and its implications for the outcome of the 2024 elections and the evolution of Pakistan’s far-right, two caveats are worth mentioning. First, the influence of the far-right in Pakistan should not be judged by the number of votes or seats it secures, but the legitimacy and influence it garners by participating in mainstream politics and the street power it amasses.
Second, a leader’s popularity, notable exceptions notwithstanding, does not always translate into a solid electoral performance in a country like Pakistan, where the acceptability of a leader and his party in the establishment’s eyes matters more than the vote bank.
Furthermore, in a politically complicated and unpredictable country like Pakistan, popularity can decline as quickly as it rises.
Gallup Pakistan’s last survey published in March showed that Khan and Nawaz’s approval ratings stood at 61 percent and 36 percent, respectively. So, between March and June, Khan’s popularity declined only by 1 percent, while Nawaz’s acceptance remained unchanged. At the same time, Rizvi did not feature in the Gallup Survey conducted in March. Speculatively, the following three factors could explain the sudden rise in his popularity.
First, TLP thrives on ideational issues, which are the raison d’etre of its existence. It was founded in the aftermath of the hanging in 2016 of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer. TLP draws its legitimacy from Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy laws and acts as the self-appointed guardian of Prophet Muhammad’s honor by protecting those laws. The party believes that anyone trying to amend the anti-blasphemy laws is a blasphemer and worthy of killing. At any rate, one-issue parties like TLP thrive when such ideational issues are hot. Arguably, the recent Quran-burning incidents in Europe, which angered the Muslim community worldwide, would have contributed to Rizvi’s popularity. TLP exploited public anger to increase its appeal and influence in society.
Second, TLP owes its social influence and the episodic rise in popularity to various agreements. Its critics rightly refer to these as surrender documents, which it has signed with successive governments since 2017. For instance, in June, the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s coalition government signed a 12-point deal with TLP, including speedy trials of the blasphemy accused, booking them under the Anti-terrorism Act 1997 in addition to the Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code and blocking blasphemous content on social media. TLP launched its “Pakistan Bachao March” in May against rising inflation and oil prices. The acceptance of the above-mentioned demands, among others, was touted by TLP as a great success among its constituents and adding to Rizvi’s popularity.
Finally, Khan’s arrest and Nawaz’s exile coupled with public anger against political figures like Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari have created a vacuum that has benefited Rizvi temporarily. While these leaders are absent from the political scene or maintaining a low profile to avoid facing public anger, Rizvi has been on the street and interacting with his constituents as well as expanding TLP’s base by helping the 2022 flood victims. Social welfare work has always been a central plank of Pakistan’s religious-political parties to maintain social influence and relevance.
Separately, within Pakistan’s religious-political landscape, TLP has emerged as a central player, representing the largest denominational demographic, the Barelvi community, especially in Punjab and urban Sindh. TLP has done better than the established religious-political parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUIF) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Punjab. Though TLP may not win more seats in the national and provincial assemblies than JUIF or JI, in terms of street power and social influence in Punjab, it is far ahead.
Through its politics of Barelvi victimhood as the targets of terrorist attacks and the state’s indifference to the community’s grievances, TLP has sharpened the Barelvi identity for an exclusionary form of sectarian politics. It does not believe in alliances and coalitions not only with religious-political parties of other sects, but those representing the Barelvi school of thought as well, like the Sunni Tehreek.
It considers itself as the sole representative of Pakistan’s Barelvi community. The polarization within Pakistan’s religious-political landscape is consistent with the socio-political divisions present in the country’s overall political culture.
As such, the popularity of a leader in Pakistan does not translate into a formidable vote bank automatically. Between now and January, the political situation will be mediated by several variables, such as the establishment’s attitude, Nawaz’s return and the formal commencement of electioneering.
The Gallup Survey indicates that TLP is likely to get 4 percent of the votes in the upcoming election as opposed to the PML-N’s 20 percent and PTI’s 42 percent. Nonetheless, TLP will likely emerge as a major spoiler in Punjab, particularly in a closely-contested election between the PML-N and PTI.
In the 2018 election, the party secured 1.9 million votes in Punjab and deprived the PML-N of at least 13 national assembly seats. Keeping that in view, the role of religious-political parties like TLP will be critical in the final outcomes of the 2024 elections.