The latest development in Pakistan is a matter of concern as the rise of the religious ultra-right affects the international community. Terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its affiliate Jamat-ud Dawa (JuD) have formed a political party called Milli Muslim League (MML). MML and its leader Hafiz Saeed, a designated global terrorist, has announced the party will contest parliamentary elections scheduled for next year.
Saeed is the mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks.
In the recently held by-election on September 17, candidates backed by the terrorist organisations and the party bagged a percentage of votes that shocked everyone. Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s wife Begum Kulsoom Nawaz won the by-election. The seat was vacated by Nawaz Sharif following the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) disqualifying him over the Panama papers case. Their daughter, Maryam Nawaz, spearheaded her mother’s election campaign.
Kulsoom’s victory was never in doubt. The unexpected thing was two candidates backed by religious parties and militants together got around eleven per cent votes. They came third and fourth. The most shocking is they got more votes than the candidate of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), a party founded by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. PPP is the ruling party in the Sindh province.
Pakistan Muslim League’s (PML) candidate Kulsoom defeated former cricketer Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) Dr Yasmin Rashid by around 15,000 votes. In the 2013 elections, Nawaz Sharif had won the seat by more than 39,000 votes. The victory margin reduced significantly and that too in Nawaz’s stronghold. The PML (N) leadership must be worried because of losing a sizeable number of votes. It is believed that the candidates supported by religious parties influenced the traditional voters of PML (N).
The by-election will be remembered not for Kulsoom’s victory but for the rise of the ultra-right. These religious parties were not part of the elections in 2013. They proved that they can cut votes of PML (N) as well as of PTI. Normally, it is good if any sectarian party decides to come into the mainstream. But the scenario is different here. Militants and religious parties are trying to use electoral politics to their advantage. They are using mosques for their campaign and use the language of hatred. They have not changed but want to exploit the electoral system to their advantage. It is the duty of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to see religious extremists do not use religious places to spread hatred. Everyone knows that it is not easy.
An independent candidate, Azhar Husain Rizvi, was supported by Labbaik Ya Rasulallah (LYR), a coalition of Islamist groups. They belonged to Barelvi school of thought. Rizvi got around six per cent votes. His election campaign was aggressive and demanded strict religious laws. LYR’s election posters prominently featured images of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer in January 2011. Taseer was trying to help a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, accused of blasphemy. In Pakistan, the sentence for blasphemy is execution. Qadri was Taseer’s bodyguard. He assassinated him and surrendered to the police. He was hanged but many religious leaders hailed him as a martyr for Islam. Even the talk of giving human face to the blasphemy law is not acceptable to the hawkish religious leaders. Rizvi and other leaders criticized PML (N) led government for executing Mumtaz Qadri.
Another candidate, Yaqoob Sheikh, was supported by MML and Hafiz Saeed. He got around five per cent of the votes. The by-election was not contested by MML as the party was not registered with the ECP. The party is the political wing of LeT. Hafiz Saeed and other leaders of LeT will get it registered before the parliament elections. The posters of Yaqoob prominently carried photos of Hafiz Saeed. In 2012, US had named Yaqoob Sheikh as a designated global terrorist for his role in raising funds for LeT. In 2012, US had declared a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed. UN has also declared Hafiz a global terrorist.
Glorifying terrorists, terrorist organisations or banned organisations, is an offence under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997. But, both candidates flouted this norm. It is alleged that the ECP and the Punjab Police failed to take action against them. Pakistan government, ECP and other authorities need to act against Hafiz Saeed and other militants. The militants getting much more votes than the established political party should be taken seriously.