After having contested its maiden electoral contest in the September 17 by-election for National Assembly constituency, NA-120 Lahore, and bagged the fourth position, the newly-formed Milli Muslim League (MML) has now entered another election race by putting up its candidate in the by-polls for the NA-4 Peshawar.
Its first foray into electoral politics was in Punjab, where the MML leadership is based. Its second contest is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the second province where the party and its predecessor organisations such as the Jamaatud Dawa and Lashkar-i-Taiba and charity arm, Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, have done considerable work. However, it is unlikely that the MML would benefit much from the preaching and welfare work done by its parent organisations and win the by-election in rural Peshawar forming the NA-4 Peshawar constituency.
The MML has fielded Haji Liaqat Ali Khan, a highly educated and veteran JuD leader who headed its Mardan chapter, as its candidate in the by-election being held on October 26. However, he will have to contest as an independent candidate because the MML hasn’t yet been registered as a political party. In fact, the federal interior ministry has written to the Election Commission of Pakistan to not register the MML as a political party. The reason mentioned in the media was that the foreign ministry had made this recommendation due to the negative feedback from important world capitals regarding the launching of the MML by the JuD head Hafiz Saeed and the mainstreaming of militants.
The MML candidate in the NA-120 by-election, Yaqoob Shaikh, had also contested as an independent and polled 5,822 votes. It was placed fourth behind the PML-N winner, Kulsoom Nawaz, the wife of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PTI’s runner-up Dr Yasmeen Rasheed, and Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan’s Sheikh Mohammad Azhar Rizvi. The last-named was a surprise package like the MML candidate as he stood third. The candidates of older and mainstream parties such as the PPP and Jamaat-i-Islami lagged far behind in the contest.
The MML was launched on August 7 and is headed by Saifullah Khalid, the son-in-law of Hafiz Saeed. He has already visited Peshawar and opened the party’s office as part of its electioneering in the constituency. The trend of the MML campaign was evident from Saifullah Khalid’s speech in which he argued that the by-election was no longer between political parties, but among the forces of good and evil represented by Pakistan and the US on the one hand and Pakistan and Narendra Modi’s India on the other. He asked the voters to vote for the MML candidate and defeat the forces that come into power by fuelling sectarian and linguistic divisions.
The MML has no real chances of winning the by-election in presence of heavyweight candidates like PTI’s Arbab Amir Ayub, PML-N’s Nasir Khan Musazai, ANP’s Khushdil Khan and Jamaat-i-Islami’s Wasil Farooq. However, it will get an opportunity to spread its message and campaign openly in big villages, including Badaber, Matani, Surezai, Adezai and Chamkani located in a belt bordering Khyber Agency and Darra Adamkhel that suffered from militancy.
Surprisingly the launching of MML was noticed more in India than in Pakistan as Hafiz Saeed is one of the most wanted men for the Indian government. The news was also noticed more in the US, which too wants to capture or kill him.
The fact the MML was barely noticed is Pakistan wasn’t surprising because most Pakistanis saw it as yet another addition to the large number of religio-political parties operating in the country. It hardly mattered to them that one more party was going to seek votes in the name of Islam from an electorate unimpressed by the ones already taking part in elections and failing to get their votes.
The best-ever electoral performance by the religio-political parties in Pakistan was in the 2002 polls when an Islamic alliance secured around 11 per cent of vote by exploiting the anti-America sentiment sweeping the country due to the US invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan. It became part of the opposition to the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) created by military dictator General Pervez Musharraf as his hand-maiden to serve his purposes. Known as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), the alliance managed to form the government in the conservative North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), now renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and was part of the ruling coalition in Balochistan province. The MMA split before the 2008 general election and was roundly defeated.
The MMA included the two biggest Islamic parties, JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the Jamaat-i-Islami. Individually, the two parties haven’t polled more than a few per cent votes in successive elections since Pakistan’s independence while the remaining four have been among the proverbial also-rans in the polls.
Most voters in Pakistan love their religion, but are unwilling to place their trust in the clerics heading the religio-political parties to properly run the government and understand the intricacies of diplomacy, finance and governance. Most Islamic parties have been competing and losing elections for years, but one that tried its luck in the polls in recent years and fared poorly was firebrand preacher Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik that won only one National Assembly seat in 2002.
Hafiz Saeed along with his four aides was put under house arrest in January this year. His spokesmen have been protesting the ban by arguing that the Pakistani courts had acquitted him in all cases. He and his aides had used the JuD to remain active when the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was outlawed. When the JuD too was banned, they began using the platform of the non-governmental organisation, Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, to do charity work to win the goodwill of the people and promote their cause. It isn’t uncommon in Pakistan for banned parties and organisations to re-emerge with new names and platforms to be able to continue their activities.
There is no doubt that Hafiz Saeed enjoyed considerable freedom of movement in Pakistan despite the criticism the government has faced at home and abroad for failing to curb his activities. Finally his freedom of movement was curtailed and his live television interviews were blocked. The religio-political parties suffer from chronic disunity and have a narrow denominational and sectarian base. It is unrealistic to believe that the MML would do any better than those already in the electoral field. These Islamic parties can make a difference if an MMA-like alliance is formed to contest the polls. At the moment though, it is unlikely to happen.