The ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) won the by-polls of NA-120 in Lahore, their stronghold, with a narrow margin and amid an unexpected low turnout (39.42 per cent) — raising concerns about its decreased popularity. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the key opponent of PML-N, lost by only 14,000 votes.
However, the post-election analyses have been taken over by an altogether different debate: the rise of hard-line religious groups in this by-poll.
Surprisingly, two new political groups – Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) and Milli Muslim League (MML) – with strong religious backgrounds stood third and fourth in this politically significant by-poll. The media had neglected both these groups during their election coverage and also conducted surveys revealing that people were uninterested in voting for “religious goons”. Many now, name these groups as “spoilers”.
Tehreek-e-Labaik is the political face of Tehreek-e-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, a protest movement which was created to support Mumtaz Qadri, the bodyguard of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer. In 2011 Qadri shot Taseer dead for the latter’s call to reform the blasphemy law. Qadri was arrested and convicted by the court, and then hanged in 2016.
A Sunni-Barelvi faction of society loudly opposed Qadri’s execution and campaigned against the ruling PML-N considering it responsible for this execution. This hard-line religious group, which wants no compromise on Pakistan’s largely misused blasphemy laws, stood third in the NA-120 by-poll securing 7,130 votes.
In the same vein, the Milli Muslim League, a political face of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), led by Hafiz Saeed, stood fourth in the by-poll with nearly 6,000 votes. JuD is a prominent Salafi/Wahabi group which supports the freedom struggle in Indian Kashmir and is accused of cross-border infiltration by India. It is closely monitored by the government for suspicious activities. It has launched its political group only a month ago. Saeed’s group is quite conspicuous around the country, sprouting in different areas with different faces, one of which is the relief organisation Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), also under watch of the government, which helps people in disasters and catastrophes.
On polling day, the workers of Tehreek-e-Labaik stood in their camps outside polling stations and actively mobilised people to vote for the “protection of dignity of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)”.
“We are requesting people to vote for us to take revenge of the execution of shaheed (martyr) Mumtaz Qadri. We want to defeat Nawaz Sharif, whom we consider responsible for Qadri’s death,” said Muhammad Imran, a young supporter and activist of Tehreek-e-Labaik. Their canvassing on the day of the election was followed by small rallies of young and old men on motorbikes riding around the constituency, raising party flags, and enthusiastically chanting “Labaik Ya Rasool”.
The Labaik movement is led by a Sunni-Barelvi cleric, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, famous for his fiery speeches and extreme views on many issues, one of which is religious minorities. Originally from district Attock, Rizvi now leads the party from Lahore.
The party’s candidate for NA-120 was 40-year-old Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, a diehard worker of the party who runs a small-scale wood-polish business in Lahore’s old city. The candidate, who has not completed his schooling, of Tehreek-e-Labaik says they got fewer votes than they expected. He complains that the media did not cover their party enough, and that they didn’t have huge funds for campaigning and lastly that the ruling PML-N used its power to block their vote bank. “In 2016, we announced to contest the next general elections,” says Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi.
Before Qadri’s execution, Khadim Hussain Rizvi had been leading the Ghazi Mumtaz Qadri Rehai Tehreek, which was later translated into the Labaik Movement. The Tehreek-e-Labaik is now registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan and is in the process of being allotted a party symbol – this election, however, their candidate contested as an independent candidate. On Facebook, the movement has more than 9,000 members, and till the filing of this report, Khadim Hussain Rizvi had nearly one million likes on his own official Facebook page.
Sheikh Yaqoob, the candidate for MML, says “this is just the beginning. The public response is encouraging and we will create a serious impact in next general elections,” says Yaqoob, who has been running huge resourceful campaign equal to two main political parties. “The campaign was funded by the public and party supporters.” Yaqoob has been a stanch supporter and member of JUD for the past many years. His party also vows to field a candidate in the NA-4 (Peshawar) by-poll scheduled at the end of October. The MML has also moved the ECP for registration and is in the process of being allotted a party symbol.
Interestingly, both new parties are opposed to each other on sectarian grounds. Both groups secured a cumulative 11 per cent of the votes, and the difference of votes between these two groups is of only 1,400 votes.
“It was the first election of these two groups (TLP and MML) and in the long run they can cause dents in electoral politics,” says political analyst Mazhar Abbas. “In order to make this impact, these groups will have to make alliances in the next general election”. Abbas thinks the role of these groups, having a sizeable vote bank in different pockets of Punjab, “is that of ‘spoilers’ and they would mainly affect the PML-N vote bank”.
Abbas considers Tehreek-e-Labaik as an offshoot of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a religio-political party whose followers belong to the Sunni-Barelvi faith, which was initially led by Shah Ahmad Noorani and later split into different groups. However, Tehreek-e-Labaik’s positioning, reagarding blasphemy issue and execution of Qadri is aggressive. He says this group can attract a significant number of votes in different parts of Punjab.
Similarly, JuD, which many believe has support from the military establishment, can also garner a good number of votes in different parts of Punjab, including south Punjab. Abbas says the outlook of such religious groups entering in politics, primarily, is always sectarian. However, he supports the political role of such groups as long as they denounce violence and have people’s support.