Though efforts were being made since long to revive the six-party religio-political alliance, Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), expectations were raised that the wish would finally materialise when the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) head Sirajul Haq announced last month that decision had been taken in principle to formally restore the erstwhile Islamic coalition by mid-December 2017.
However, those aware of the views and working of the six religious-cum-political parties knew that the revival of the MMA won’t be a smooth affair. These parties have been operating separately since the break-up of the MMA in 2008 and even working at cross-purposes. Also, the two biggest Islamic parties are now part of rival alliances with the JUI-F aligned to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and part of the federal government and the JI content to serve as a junior partner of the PTI in the coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. As the PML-N and PTI are bitterly opposed to each other, their allies too are sometimes drawn into their rivalry against each other.
Certain recent decisions and contentious issues continue to pose hurdles in reviving the MMA. One such decision was the understanding reached in early November between the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Samiul Haq (JUI-S) chief Maulana Samiul Haq and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan to form an electoral alliance for contesting the 2018 general election. The move was surprising as such an alliance would largely benefit the JUI-S, a small party with no representation in any assembly in the country and inconsequential vote-bank.
The only benefit that the PTI could gain from this alliance would be to stop the MMA’s revival or at least keep the JUI-S out of it in case it is revived. That too won’t make any real difference as the MMA has always been dominated by the JUI-F and JI, the two biggest parties in the alliance. Besides, the PTI could claim that its policies and leadership are acceptable to an Islamic party, thereby rebutting the allegations of the rival Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has consistently alleged that Imran Khan is promoting un-Islamic practices and working for the Jewish lobby.
The damage to the PTI from aligning with the JUI-S would be more than any benefit because Maulana Samiul Haq had been close to the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the past and represented it in the failed peace talks with the federal government of PML-N in early 2014. Also, the PTI may have to give a few seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and in the Senate under their electoral alliance without getting anything in return. Rather, it would cause resentment in PTI ranks and prompt aspirants for the party ticket in the constituencies allotted to the JUI-S to rebel against any such decision and contest the polls as independent candidates.
As the PTI has been under constant attack by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, it has tried to protect its flanks by moving closer to Maulana Samiul Haq. PTI Chief Minister Pervez Khattak gave Rs300 million from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government funds to the Darul Uloom Haqqania, one of the biggest madrassas in Pakistan run by Maulana Samiul Haq in Akora Khattak in Nowshera district. As Pervez Khattak and Maulana Samiul Haq both belong to Nowshera, the former played a key role in befriending the Maulana by funding his madrassa and formalising the electoral alliance with his party.
The PTI defended its controversial decision by arguing that the donation was part of the reforms aimed at streamlining the madrassas. Imran Khan also selected the Darul Uloom Haqqania to publicly launch a polio vaccination campaign in the company of Maulana Samiul Haq to neutralise the criticism by certain clerics and the militants against the anti-polio drive.
Imran Khan may have his own reasons to strike an electoral alliance with the JUI-S, but there are some who have given a different meaning to it. One senior government official was heard as saying that the major reason for Imran Khan to make the alliance with Maulana Samiul Haq was to use the latter’s influence on the militants to prevent any suicide attack on him during the coming election campaign. This seems far-fetched and one is aware that Maulana Samiul Haq doesn’t have that kind of influence on all the militant groups who are now a divided lot, but people make their own conclusions and attach meaning to motives.
There are other reasons also that could put obstacles in reviving the MMA and making it work. One is the divergent position taken by the JUI-F and JI on the future status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Like most other political parties including the JUI-S, the JI is a strong supporter of Fata’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The JUI-F has steadfastly opposed the merger and is demanding a referendum to let the tribal people decide whether they want to join Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or a separate Fata province. The JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rehman has gone to the extent of claiming that Fata’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is part of the US agenda in the region. Terming his stand as incorrect, the JI leader Sirajul Haq maintained that the merger was necessary to give political, economic and legal rights to the tribespeople and put Fata on the path of development.
Another contentious point is the timing of quitting the government as the JUI-F is a share-holder in the PML-N-led federal government and the JI is part of the PTI-headed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. Both want to enjoy the perks of power as long as possible and preferably quit on completion of the five-year term of the government in May 2018 so that they could obtain and spend development funds and complete projects to be able to oblige the voters and get their votes in the next election. According to the JI and JUI-F leaders, the decision to quit the government would be made by the so-called MMA Forum, but it isn’t clear when it would be convened to reach a consensus on the issue.
It is obvious that the religio-political parties are desperate to revive the MMA as they want to consolidate their votes and offer an Islamic option to the electorate. They had done very well in the 2002 general election when the MMA contested the polls as an electoral alliance and won the largest number of seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and formed the government and also became part of the coalition government in Balochistan. The MMA also became the biggest opposition block in the National Assembly against the ruling PML-Q created by General Pervez Musharraf to serve his political agenda.
However, the MMA achieved success in the 2002 polls on the basis of the consolidated Islamic vote and the anti-America wave then sweeping parts of Pakistan following the post-9/11 US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime. Those conditions no longer exist and the Islamic vote is now also shared by the PTI and PML-N. Moreover, the MMA has been tried and found wanting when it got to rule Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan for five years.
Even if the MMA is revived, the circumstances have changed and its component parties can only dream of repeating the success they achieved in 2002.