Pakistan election sees the rise of anti-blasphemy party

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani opposition leader and head of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a religious parties alliance, Maulana Fazalur Rehman (R) speaks to media after attending a meeting. — AFP

ISLAMABAD: 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 elections last week, which were tainted by the rise of extremist groups. Islamic fundamentalist parties fielded more than 1,500 candidates in Pakistan’s provincial and national elections that were won by cricket hero 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. Here AFP looks at how the main extremist parties fared during Wednesday’s polls.

Anti-blasphemy party

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 the capital Islamabad for several weeks calling for stricter enforcement of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.

It wants the automatic death penalty for anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or the Prophet Muhammad. 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 the Prophet Mohammed 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 provincial assembly of Sindh.
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 website data shows. “Their overall number of votes is very surprising. It’s a really spectacularly rapid rise,” political commentator Fasi Zaka told AFP. 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 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 election.
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 LeT’s long-established charitable arm — 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 Shiite 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.
ASWJ is considered to be the political face of sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been behind numerous bloody attacks on Shiite 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. – AFP

This article was published on 31/07/2018