The Pulse

Pakistan’s Islamist Parties Could Emerge Spoilers or Kingmakers

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Pakistan’s Islamist Parties Could Emerge Spoilers or Kingmakers

Although these parties may not win many seats — they have not formed an alliance and lack the support of the military establishment — they could still play a role post-February 8.

Pakistan’s Islamist Parties Could Emerge Spoilers or Kingmakers

Siraj ul Haq, leader of the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami addresses supporters at an election campaign rally in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Fareed Khan

On February 8, Pakistanis will vote in elections to the national and provincial assemblies. Rather than an organic and genuine electoral process, the general election resembles a selection of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) to head a weak, coalition government.

A week ahead of the general elections, the political atmosphere in Pakistan is dull and the public seems indifferent to what many view as a rigged process, the military establishment’s catharsis against former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was also chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI).

Against this backdrop, it is somewhat difficult to probe the role of different religious-political outfits in the upcoming elections and their public appeal.

Twenty-three religious parties out of 175 registered political parties are in the electoral fray. Traditionally, Islamist parties have performed poorly in national and provincial elections; the only exception was the 2002 general elections when the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) — a coalition of six religious parties — performed well and formed the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces

Since 2013, the electoral appeal and vote bank of Islamist parties has steadily declined, notwithstanding the meteoric rise of the neo-Barelvi outfit Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) in the 2018 elections. This trend is likely to persist in the upcoming elections as well. Reportedly, in the 2018 elections, 12 Islamist parties secured 5.2 million out of 54.3 million ballots polled across Pakistan.

Four factors are likely to contribute to the vote share of Islamist parties declining in the February 8 elections. Firstly, unlike the 2018 elections, these parties have not formed any electoral alliances. In 2018, religious outfits that were part of the MMA coalition revived the alliance and contested polls from its platform. However, this is not the case in the current election.

Secondly, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the absence of any emotively appealing and religiously sensitive issue that these parties exploit to galvanize their niche vote banks in different parts of Pakistan will also contribute to their poor electoral performance. In the current elections, the real issues confronting Pakistan are civil-military relations, rising inflation and the poor state of the economy as well as the deteriorating security situation. On none of these issues do any of the Islamist parties hold any relevance in the eyes of the voters.

Thirdly, since Islamist parties have not come together in an alliance, their votes are scattered across Pakistan and it barely translates into a substantive number of seats at the national or provincial levels.

Finally, unlike the 2018 elections, when the military establishment backed the TLP to undermine the PML-N’s vote bank, the generals are not backing any religious entity in the upcoming vote. The lack of backing from the establishment will also contribute to the Islamist parties performing poorly.

The TLP, which bagged 2.2 million votes in the 2018 elections, will struggle to retain its tally in the upcoming elections. Similarly, it will not secure a sizeable number of seats at the national or provincial levels. It bears mention that the TLP secured two provincial seats from Sindh in the 2018 elections. At any rate, TLP has 4,000-8,000 votes in every constituency in Punjab and urban Sindh, i.e., Karachi and Hyderabad. It is capable of spoiling the show for mainstream political parties in Punjab and urban Sindh. For instance, TLP could dent the vote share of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the PTI in Karachi.

Likewise, in Punjab, it could hurt the PML-N and PTI’s “independent candidates” in certain constituencies. It bears mention that in the 2018 elections, TLP deprived the PML-N of 15 national assembly seats. It remains to be seen, given that the establishment is not backing the TLP, whose show the party will spoil once the final results are out.

The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) is another Islamist party that is worth mentioning. Despite an expected poor electoral performance, it could win some seats from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pashtuns areas of Balochistan. The assumption is that the JUI-F will partially benefit from the political vacuum created by the weakening of the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In the 2018 election, the JUI-F secured 12 national assembly seats and if the party repeats its performance or wins 8-10 seats, it will emerge as a key kingmaker in a hung parliament where smaller parties will play a vital role in the formation of the government. Their political influence and bargain leverage could increase.

The JUI-F is quite close to the PML-N and it will join the ruling coalition, provided it succeeds in winning 8-10 national assembly seats. Whether the JUI-F succeeds in forming the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in alliance with the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pervez Khattak’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Parliamentarians (PTIP), will depend in large part on the performance of PTI’s independent candidates as well as the former two.

If ANP and PTIP do well — the chances for which are very slim — and the JUI-F puts up an impressive show at the provincial level, then a coalition government of these parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is expected.

The sectarian political organizations and political fronts of militant outfits like Jamaat-ud-Dawa as well as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) will also struggle to gain substantive votes in the February 8 elections. For instance, the anti-Shia Sunni outfit, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), contested the 2013 election as a coalition partner of the Muttahida Deeni Mahaz coalition and its candidates got around 6,000 votes in different constituencies. In the 2018 election, ASWJ participated in the polls as the Rah-i-Haq Party and its vote share shrank further.

Likewise, the Shia party, Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM), bagged 12,360 votes in the 2018 elections down from 41,532 in 2013. The downward trend in 2024 is likely to continue. Similarly, Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith secured just 520 votes in 2013 and did not show any enthusiasm in the 2018 polls. Finally, the JI, notwithstanding a surge in its vote bank in Karachi’s local elections, is running a perfunctory election campaign and seems resigned to a poor electoral performance already.

From the above, Islamist parties, specifically the JUI-F and TLP, will either emerge as kingmakers or spoilers for mainstream political parties in the February 8 elections. Other outfits, despite a declining vote bank, will continue to retain the relevance, legitimacy and social influence as pressure groups by dint of participation in the electoral process.