he ideological divide, highly relevant during the early decades after independence, waned following the establishment’s interventions. Only some tiny groups of the Left are now trying to restore the ideological momentum.
The Right, on the other hand, has enjoyed impunity throughout the history of the country. A few insights from past electoral cycles may be telling.
An analysis of the 2018 general elections is significant as far as the performance of rightwing parties is concerned. In this election, the right wing parties were riding the ebb. One of the leading parties of the Right, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan received massive support of powerful quarters. It was said to have been launched to cut into the vote bank of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). The TLP championed the cause of Khatam-i-Nabuwwat and made it the cornerstone of its electoral campaign.
In the elections marred by allegations of systematic rigging, the TLP emerged as the fifth largest party nationwide with 2.23 million votes, surprising many analysts and commentators. The election was the first such campaign by the party and it had managed to perform very well in terms of the number of votes although it did not secure too many national and provincial assembly seats. It won two provincial assembly seats in Sindh. However, the alleged establishment objective was achieved. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) received the highest number of votes, 16.9 million, while the PML-N came in second, securing 12.9 million votes.
The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the centre-left party on the ideological spectrum, secured the third position with 6.9 million votes and the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) – an alliance of the JUI and some smaller religious parties – received 2.5 million votes, coming in fourth. Interestingly, most of the votes were polled by the centre-right and rightwing parties as both the PTI and the PML-N are considered centre-right. Both have used religious symbolism in their election campaigns and their discourse about socio-political issues in the country. The ideological credentials of both these parties are opaque. The PPP was the only party with liberal credentials but there was a yawning gap between votes polled by it and the rightwing parties.
Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek and Majlis-i-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM), two other smaller rightwing parties, secured twelfth and thirty-third position with 172,000 and 19,615 votes, respectively. The MWM is a party of the Shia sect that had allied itself with the PTI and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) during their sit-in in the capital, and elsewhere during protest demonstrations over various issues. Some commentators believe them to be supported by the all-powerful quarters in Pakistan. Historically, Shias have shied away from voting along sectarian lines and mostly been part of the mainstream.
As far as winning candidates or seats are concerned, rightwing parties have always fared poorly. Their electoral strength has remained meagre. This was evidenced during the elections in the 1990s, when the Shia-Sunni hostility was at its peak. The Tehreek-i-Nafaz-i-Fiqh Jafaria (TNFJ) did poorly in that environment of intense sectarianism. It can also be argued that the severe tensions and dissentions within rightwing parties hindered their performance electorally.
The vote bank of religio-political parties has oscillated between 10 and 12 percent of the total registered voters. The MMA got the same votes in the 2002 elections, although it managed to secure a high number of seats. The major reason was the resurgence of rightwing parties in the backdrop of the September 11 attacks. However, the MMA was unable to sustain this momentum and lost its electoral strength in the 2008 elections. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, they came to be disliked for supporting the Musharraf regime.
The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) is one of the most organised rightwing parties with an effective agitational potential. Its support is visible in various union politics in railways, PIA, Pakistan Steel Mills, teachers’ alliances and lawyers’ councils. It bears the stigma of having supported dictatorial regimes time and again. Electorally, it has performed well only in alliance with other parties. When the PML-N was not allowed a level playing field in the 2002 elections, it withdrew its candidates and extended support to the JI in Lahore. Resultantly, three JI men were elected to the National Assembly and one on a provincial assembly seat. Soon afterwards, however, the party was reduced to its actual size.
Earlier, in 1993, it had launched itself as an Islamic Front with much fanfare with the slogan: Zalimo, Qazi aa raha hai (Oppressors, the Qazi is coming), referring to JI chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad. However, the campaign failed in the Punjab. It fared better in Karachi whenever the MQM went on a boycott. The MQM boycotted the National Assembly elections in 1993 and the JI benefited from that. However, in the same elections, the MQM contested the provincial assembly seats and routed all its rivals, including the JI.
Broadly speaking, the 2002 elections saw a resurgence of the Right following the September 11 attacks in the US. The 2008 elections were fought on the narrative of democracy, rule of law and independence of the judiciary. The 2013 elections were contested on issues of electricity load shedding, terrorism, economy, perceptions regarding PPP’s poor performance and comparatively better performance of Shahbaz Sharif in the Punjab. The 2018 elections manifested the resurgence of rightist forces. The upcoming elections may be fought around multiple crises that Pakistan is now faced with. What is conspicuously absent in the political agendas of nearly all political parties is a well thought-out strategy to solve the economic woes of the country and its people.
The writer has a PhD in history from the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He heads the History Department at University of Sargodha. He has worked as a research fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He can be reached at abrar.zahoorhotmail.com. His X handle: AbrarZahoor1