In Karachi’s lower-income Korangi neighbourhood, Afzal Hussain Bhatti, a local leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, an electoral front of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYR), a Barelvi group with extreme views, has been meeting with young cadres for the ongoing membership drive.
Bhatti was associated with Jamiat-e-Ulema Pakistan (JUP), a major Barelvi party, headed by late Allama Shah Ahmed Noorani for the last four decades. But after the emergence of TLYR that was formed to run a campaign for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, who was convicted and executed for the murder of the then Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, Bhatti has ended his long affiliation with JUP and joined the Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led TLYR.
A few miles away from Korangi, leaders of five traditional religious parties belonging to various sects gathered at the residence of late Shah Noorani in Clifton on March 20.
In order to claim their share of the pie in the upcoming general elections, religious parties’ leaders agreed to revive the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an electoral alliance that was formed in 2002 general elections. But on ground, at the time of election, they might end up eating a humble pie because of these extreme wings of some sectarian parties contesting against them.
After a series of deliberations since the informal announcement of revival of MMA in December 2017, leaders of five religious parties — Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP), Tehreek-e-Islami Pakistan (TIP) and Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH) — have announced that Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and Liaquat Baloch would be the president and secretary general of the revived MMA and they will contest the upcoming general elections from the MMA platform, which would have one election symbol, one flag, and one manifesto.
“MMA will utilise all its energies to implement Islamic system in the country to resolve national issues and protect the rights of religious minorities, the oppressed and the deprived sections of society,” Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman told reporters at a recent press conference.
Rehman said they were open to the idea of seat adjustments with other parties. Although the alliance’s main objective is to unite the now divided vote bank of religio-political parties, political analysts believe that gaining electoral success will not be easy for them this time.
In the 2002 general elections, MMA formed a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and formed coalition government with Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) in Balochistan. The alliance won most of the National Assembly seats from FATA and managed to win a number of seats from Karachi and Hyderabad in Sindh. But it became dormant after developing internal rifts between two of its major components — JUI-F and JI — on the issue of contesting general elections in 2008.
Sabookh Syed, an Islamabad-based analyst who specialises in religious parties, says the success of MMA in 2002 general elections can be attributed to the region’s geopolitical significance and the US attacks on Afghanistan. “But now these traditional sect-based religious parties have been facing a great challenge — emergence of aggressive groups within their ranks that are contesting the general polls on sect-based issues.”
For Bhatti, who is a proof of Syed’s assessment, there is no attraction left in MMA now. “I had worked hard for MMA candidates on behalf of JUP in the 2002 general elections because the US and its allied forces had attacked Afghanistan. But today there is need to support groups that are struggling for the belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) on the streets,” he says. “Now our lives and votes are for TLYR, not for JUP.”
The JUP has already been divided into two more factions led by Sahibzada Abul Khair Zubair and Qari Zawar Bahadur.
It is not only TLYR that is damaging the support base of JUP; other sect-based parties have also been doing this.
Although JUI-F managed to sustain its support base in the rural areas of KP and Balochistan’s Pashtun areas through its network of madrassas and mosques, Ahle-Sunnat-Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), which earlier operated as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan before both were banned, has emerged a key Deobandi group, attracting aggressive youth from urban centres of Pakistan.
Happy with their success in the 2016 electoral fights, including winning the Punjab Assembly seat PP-78 from Jhang and local government seats in Karachi, ASWJ leaders actively propagated that the group has abandoned its anti-Shia rhetoric and is now joining mainstream electoral politics.
It was also believed the group would form an electoral alliance with JUI-F but their expectations were dashed after MMA’s revival. Syed says that even Jhang MPA, Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi’s joining JUI-F in December 2016 had not worked. “In the upcoming polls, ASWJ can affect JUI-F’s vote bank and in some constituencies, the group can win too,” he says.
Maulana Samiul Haq-led faction of JUI is also not part of MMA this time and it would also affect the Deobandi vote bank of JUI-F in KP after its likely alliance with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) has replaced Allama Sajid Naqvi-led traditional Shia party — TIP — which previously operated as the Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan before being banned. MWM managed to muster support of the Shia electorate and contested against the TIP in various areas, especially in Gilgit Baltistan. The MWM, because of its aggressive ways of politics, has gained popularity among the Shia youth and Imamia Students Organisation (ISO), a nation-wide Shia student group active on the campuses, also abandoned TIP and allied with MWM.
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Similarly, Senator Sajid Mir’s MJAH, a traditional Ahle Hadith group that is ally of the ruling Pakistan Mulsim League-Nawaz, has suffered a setback due to Jamaat-ud-Dawah, a jihadi group that traditionally distances itself from electoral politics but has recently started taking part in elections by using its electoral front, Milli Muslim League (MML).
The MML has managed to bag significant votes in several by-elections, especially in Lahore and Peshawar. To counter its growing influence, the MJAH has merged Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer’s Jamiat Ahle Hadith Pakistan into it.
“These aggressive sect-based groups, such as TYLR and MML, can cause a dent in the electoral support base of MMA’s component parties by bagging 5000 to12000 votes in each constituency,” Syed says.