Mainstreaming extremism in electoral arena is dangerous

July 8, 2018: Mainstreaming extremism in electoral arena is dangerous

The forthcoming elections in 2018 are mired in plethora of controversies; and this does not augur well for the years to come. The Sharif brothers, beset by convictions, defections and media trials are struggling to retain their electoral power but their arch-foe Imran Khan is gaining by the day. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young leader of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is drawing sizeable crowds in Sindh and southern Punjab. The performance of these parties will determine who will form the next government.

But there is a less talked about facet of the elections this year which is worrying for the future trajectory of the country. Three ultra right groups are also participating in the elections. And all three are problematic to say the least.

First, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) after displaying its clout with the powers-that-be last year is in the electoral fray. A man claiming to be a TLP member shot at Ahsan Iqbal, the former Interior minister of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government. He accused Iqbal of blasphemy. TLP has fielded a number of candidates mainly in the Punjab. The calculation was/is that TLP will eat into PMLN vote. PMLN was accused of tampering with the oath for public office holders regarding the finality of Prophethood. Massive propaganda and street protests have made many a voter believe in this bogus charge. Imran Khan and his current chief ally Sheikh Rasheed have been fanning this issue and election posters of some PTI candidates also refer to this issue.

Thousands of Pakistanis — including army officers, soldiers and policemen — have paid a price for our policies. How much more damage will convince the power-wielders to end this?

The second group in the electoral contest is Milli Muslim League (MML), a political front of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), ostensibly a charity network, formed after the armed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was banned on international pressure. MML was not allowed to be registered by the Election Commission of Pakistan. But it’s candidates are in the run as either independents or allied with another registered party. Such are the loopholes in our electoral system that can be used with great ease.

Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) is the third group contesting elections. ASWJ emerged from Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a Sunni extremist outfit that has reportedly carried out sectarian violence against Pakistani Shias. Other than hate speech, the violence has claimed thousands of Shia lives in the last decade.

In 1990s, the SSP splintered into the ASWJ and the fully armed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). And both outfits are banned and classified as terrorist organisations under Pakistani law. ASWJ candidates have contested elections in the past and even this time they were allowed in recent weeks.

Mainstreaming — a loosely applied term for integrating the militants of yore into the polity — has been debated in the media. A retired general announced on national TV last year that such a plan had been under consideration but former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not in favour of implementing that. Now that the political configuration has changed, it seems that the plan is being quietly implemented and the first part is to allow these groups to field candidates in the elections. Since Nawaz Sharif is on the wrong side of the establishment, there is an added incentive to mainstreaming to undercut the support of conservative voters that Sharif enjoyed over the decades, especially in the Punjab.

Curiously, the three groups have different sectarian leanings. TLP is predominantly Barelvi (earlier considered as a peaceful ally of the Sufi movement). The ASWJ has the Deobandi support, while MML/JUD has more of Ahl-e-Hadith support. It seems that in addition to instruments such as judicial verdicts and media influence, such sectarian mobilisation is underway to undermine the PMLN voter base. Whether this will work or not, we shall find out on July 25. One thing is clear that once such religious passions are out of the bottle, they acquire a life of their own. Moreover, such mobilisation will also affect the PTI votes as it also attracts, among others, the socially conservative voters.

These groups are contesting election at a strange time. The international watchdog against money laundering and financing of terrorism, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has placed Pakistan on its grey list. In other words Pakistan is considered a jurisdiction with “strategic deficiencies.” Pakistan joined Ethiopia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and Yemen as countries where deficient anti-money laundering and combating financing of terrorism practices exist. In 2015, Pakistan was taken off the list, and after three years of observation, its re-entry into the club is not good for the country’s image or its engagement with the international financial system.

Admittedly, this placement came due to the US pressure given the recent dip in Pakistan-US ties. But the implications of FATF grey list are not easy to ignore. It will increase transaction costs for trade, and lending; and more importantly, it impacts the foreign investment outlook for the country. Stock prices at Pakistan Stock Exchange displayed the after-effects.

Beyond the FATF listing, what are the implications for the country when extremist discourse becomes ‘normal’ and ‘mainstream’? It has taken many years and strong leadership under the two Army Chiefs to conduct a war against terrorists in different parts of the country. The National Action Plan (NAP) reflected the civil-military consensus on tackling this mess. But the hope that the country was changing its direction was short-lived.

In the elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a motely group of religious parties is also contesting elections. The key players of this alliance — the Jamaat e Islami (JI) and Jamiat e Ulema Islam-Fazl — now appear to be moderate democrats compared to the dangerous rhetoric that the ultra right groups employ. For decades, the JI was seen as a villain by Pakistan’s liber-Left for the kind of politics it introduced and especially the role it played under Zia regime. We certainly have graduated by allowing more insidious players becoming mainstream.

One cannot argue for blanket bans and disenfranchising different segments of Pakistani society. At the same time, the state undermining its own resolve such as NAP is also intriguing. Such gerrymandering has long-term inimical consequences. Thousands of Pakistanis — including army officers, soldiers and policemen — have paid a price for that. How much more damage will convince the power-wielders to end this?

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