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Worrying Trends

by AFP
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Khadim Hussain Rizvi. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Pakistan’s 2018 general elections see rise of anti-blasphemy party

A relatively new anti-blasphemy party whose leader has reportedly vowed to nuke the Netherlands should he ever come to power did surprisingly well in Pakistan’s general elections last week, which were tainted by the participation of several extremist groups.

Islamic fundamentalist parties fielded more than 1,500 candidates in the provincial and national elections that were won by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Extremists were a major talking point going into the contest with politicians, including Khan, accused of pandering to their vote base by trumpeting hardline issues such as blasphemy.

A brief look at how the main extremist parties fared during Wednesday’s polls.

Anti-blasphemy platform

The performance of Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), led by radical preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi, will worry mainstream politicians and human rights activists the most.

The group, founded in 2015, entered the national consciousness last year when it blockaded Islamabad for several weeks calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. It wants an automatic death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or its Prophet.

Rizvi reportedly told journalists recently that if he took power in the nuclear-armed country he would “wipe Holland off the face of the earth,” over cartoons of Islam’s Prophet published there.

Fortunately for the Netherlands, TLP failed to win any of the 272 seats up for grabs in Pakistan’s National Assembly. It did, however, capture two seats in the Sindh provincial assembly.

TLP polled over 2.23 million votes in the National Assembly elections, its first general election, and more than 2.38 million provincial votes, Election Commission of Pakistan website data shows.

“Their overall number of votes is very surprising. It’s a really spectacularly rapid rise,” said political commentator Fasi Zaka.

TLP’s strong showing is of particular concern to Pakistan’s Ahmadi community, which has long been targeted by extremists. They consider themselves Muslims but their beliefs are seen as blasphemous in most mainstream Islamic schools of thought.

Group linked to Mumbai attacks

Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek was backed by Hafiz Saeed, the man accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. Saeed has been designated a terrorist by the United Nations and has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head.

Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek was formed after Pakistan banned the Milli Muslim League—the political party of hardline militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is headed by Saeed—from the elections. None of the party’s candidates won seats but they did register more than 435,000 national and regional votes.

Zaka said he had expected work done in Punjab by Taiba’s long-established charitable arm—the Jamaat-ud-Dawa—to have translated into more votes.

“They have been in the business of service delivery where the state has not fulfilled its remit … I think they have underperformed,” he said.

Sunni hardliners

Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) is a radical Sunni group that frequently spouts hatred against Pakistan’s Shia minority community, considering them heretics.

“If we get power in the evening and if a single Shia is alive by the morning in Pakistan then change my name,” leader Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi told an election rally.

Jamaat is considered to be the political face of sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has been behind numerous bloody attacks on Shia Muslims in Pakistan. Its candidates ran as independents and were known to have won at least one seat, in the Punjab Assembly.

Zaka, the analyst, said that while votes for extremist parties did not translate into many seats in a first-past-the-post system, their sizable vote banks will give them clout in an increasingly competitive political landscape. “The interesting thing about this election is not what it says about Pakistan now but what kind of space it creates for a Pakistan five years down the line,” he said.

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1 comment

Srinath July 31, 2018 - 2:56 pm

The growing vote bank of the religious parties with agendas that spell danger to harmony at home and peace in the region is alarming enough. This could prove to be a millstone around the Pakistan’s neck and may inhibit the government in its effort to achieve peace with neighours Also, these groups may be used by the Deep State to put the civilian leadership on the leash.

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