Pakistan Elections 2013: Declining Support for Religious Parties

29 May, 2013    ·   3955

Anu Krishnan on the reasons why religious parties are losing public sympathy in the aftermath of the elections

Religious parties in Pakistan, led by the JI, JUI factions and others took part in the elections individually in 2013. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) as an alliance of the religious parties has been out of action since 2008. An unsuccessful attempt at reviving the alliance was made in 2012 by the JUI-F, with the JI refusing to join. Does the performance of religious parties in the 2013 indicate they are being rejected by the people? How have they performed in the recent elections, and what are their prospects of being a leading party in today’s Pakistan?

An Overview of the Performances
The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) led by Maulama Fazlur Rahman and the once popular Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) are the two prominent religious fronts whose performances in elections have waned substantially in the recent years and yet rank above that of other religious parties. The JUI-F’s key constituencies are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. Despite a 12-point manifesto which strongly opposed the US drone attacks and ‘War on Terror’, it has failed in securing an electoral victory. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa largely voted in favour of the PTI; Balochistan marked a voter turn-out less than 2 percent and no party got a majority. JUI-F won just 10 seats in the National assembly. The JI, which was contesting an election outside an alliance for the first time since 1988, also marked a poor show, by managing to win only 3 seats in the National Assembly and an equally dull performance in the provinces.

The last time the fundamentalist parties put up a good show was in 2002, when the MMA swept the national and provincial elections. This was attributed to the post 9/11 scenario and increased sympathy for the Taliban and in 2008 the parties received 3 percent of the votes. However, the popularity of the fundamentalists with the Pashtuns appears to be concrete and substantial. The JUI-F won 14 seats, mostly in Pashtun areas. It is slated to form the opposition in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the PTI. The Pashtun belt, which continues to be the focal point of jihadism and fundamentalism appear to have collectively voted against the US drones, which the PTI and JUI-F have been advocating against.

The performances of JUI-F and JI, on the other hand are much better than what other religious parties could manage. The MMA, who emerged at the top during the Musharaff years appear to be nowhere in the picture. The prospects are marginal for a coalition similar to 2002 to be formed in Pakistan today, given the plummeting support for religious parties. The Quami Watan Party (QWP) could only win one seat in the National Assembly. The religious parties also failed to perform in Rawalpindi which turned out to be a race between the PML-N and the PTI. The parties also failed to leave any mark in Punjab.

The Prospects that Proved Ineffectual
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was expected to constitute a good victory for the JUI-F. Tough electoral battles were expected in its constituencies between the PML-N, PTI and JUI-F. That the ANP was largely targeted by the Taliban resulting in disrupting their campaigning processes was also supposed to considerably uplift the prospects of the JUI-F. ANP, which had ousted the MMA in 2008, was viewed as a liberal counter to the religious JUI-F, JI and QWP. Hopes of a victory could only indicate unrealistic expectations; in a free and fair election, religious parties can hardly win over the secular and liberal parties. The influence over the society and the ability to wield control over the population do not materialize into seats, especially at a time when Pakistan has voted out a party that failed to perform.

Having suffered a split in its ranks in 2008, the JUI-F’s Fazlur Rahman took care to not alienate the party’s clerical base, while bringing electable candidates in. Reputed religious scholars such as Mufti Said Omar and Maulana Abdullah Shah were invited to contest the elections, an offer they declined. Newcomers, wealthy and even beardless men were given party tickets and women were invited to join the party as well. 

Despite these measures taken to ensure votes, what prevented the religious parties from garnering a majority anywhere? The religious factor could not have been the reason, since Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are hardly secular. Their propositions for Pakistan are embedded in Islam which continues to play a vibrant role in Pakistani politics. Perhaps Pakistan has voted in favour of PML-N, PPP and PTI based on their previous performances and large expectations. Nawaz Sharif is a tested leader and the PPP has not entirely lost the people’s faith.  Imran Khan rode on high expectations and marked a respectable show. Even though the JUI-F has shifted its focus to socio-economic issues, its failure to deliver in the past marks it as a party incapable of dealing with Pakistan’s economic ailments.

The 2013 elections thus confirm the fact that Pakistan hopes to see a strengthened democracy and economy alongside its religious affiliations.