Wednesday April 24, 2024

PTI’s JI-MWM overtures less religious, more political

And we have stood with his narrative that has spread across country: that we do not accept slavery any longer

By Zebunnisa Burki
February 14, 2024
Supporters and activists of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party stage a protest demanding the release of PTI leader Imran Khan, in Peshawar on January 28, 2024. — AFP
Supporters and activists of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party stage a protest demanding the release of PTI leader Imran Khan, in Peshawar on January 28, 2024. — AFP 

KARACHI: The PTI aligning itself with the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Majlis-e-Wahdat-Muslimeen is a purely strategic political move, say political observers, some of whom however do feel that the party does have a natural tendency to turn more to the right ideologically.

The PTI had announced on Tuesday that it will be joining hands with Majlis-e-Wahdat-Muslimeen (MWM) to form its governments in the centre and Punjab, and will form a coalition with the Jamaat-e-Islami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over reserved seats.

Confirming the alliance, MWM chief Allama Raja Nasir Abbas told Geo News on Tuesday that the MWM has “stood with Khan Sb in his testing times, ever since the regime change. And we have stood with his narrative that has spread across the country: that we do not accept slavery any longer. We believe in an independent foreign policy. We welcome the PTI chief’s decisions. This is the PTI’s own party.” On the issue of reserved seats, the MWM chief said that his party has no demand and that whatever the PTI asks for, the MWM is willing to comply. On being asked how the MWM can help the PTI in the Punjab Assembly, given that the MWM has no seat there, not much clarity was provided by Allama Abbas who did however condemn what he said was the PTI being thwarted at every step of the way. Given the PTI’s diverse range of supporters, how do political and foreign policy experts see the party’s alliance with the JI and MWM? Especially also how different the JI and MWM are ideologically speaking.

Political analyst and foreign policy commentator Mosharraf Zaidi says that the “PTI’s courting of the Jamaat and MWM is both tactically necessary and strategically convenient.” He explains this in terms of the PTI’s vote base: “The PTI voters are a mixed bag, as the party had drawn from both support both from disgruntled supporters of traditional parties and new voters that have been relatively politically disengaged. A lot of new voters come from families that may have been Jamaat supporters in decades past and had opted out of mainstream political engagement. Khan’s nationalist bravado and his deliberate stoking of anti-Western sentiment are designed to tap into that very reservoir.”

But what about the MWM? How does it fit into all this? For Zaidi, the “MWM is a “much more intriguing choice of partner. In large measure, a Shia-led party in a Sunni-majority country should be a huge credit to society. Yet the recent surge in sectarian stresses and tensions means that a very delicate balance is required to ensure the move does not cause any deepening of existing fissures.” Cautions Mosharraf Zaidi: “Delicate is the last thing Imran Khan is.”

When asked to comment on this latest development with MWM, Madiha Afzal, author of ‘Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society and the State’ and a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says that she sees the PTI allying with the MWM as “a purely strategic, practical move to circumvent the fact that the PTI needs a party banner after its candidates were elected as independents. The MWM offers that, without carrying any significant baggage of its own; it can almost be seen as a blank slate with which the PTI is allying.” Is there anything to the idea that the PTI somehow manages to return to a more right-wing or religiously inclined base? Afzal says no. In her opinion, “That [the MWM] is a religious party is almost coincidental. Almost -- because religious parties in Pakistan win so few seats that they have always been a convenient tool for coalition governments.”

This is something that others also feel. For journalist Mehmal Safraz, “While the PTI’s alliances with the JI and MWM are more strategic than ideological, the party has always used religion to its advantage. From Riyasat-e-Madina to going after its opponents by using the ‘Islamic touch’, the PTI has no issue with using religion for its politics.”

Journalist Nasim Zehra feels that the PTI’s decision to go with the JI and MWM “has more to do with the PTI’s concern of not being part of a mainstream political party that has its own identity. They are hoping that by being in either of these parties, they can retain their own identity and essentially turn this party[ies] more into a PTI. At this point, they are hoping they can do this and also get reserved seats. I don’t think this is a signaling of the PTI’s proclivity to be a religious party or to please or displease Iran or Saudi Arabia. I see this more in the context of the political choices the PTI has or doesn’t have.”

Husain Haqqani, former Pakistani ambassador and currently a scholar at Washington DC’s Hudson Institute and the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy in Abu Dhabi, sees the PTI as being directed by one man “Imran Khan, and research on his political career reveals two consistent themes. One is his admiration for right-wing Islamist ideology and the other is disdain for all Pakistani politicians, except himself.”

Is there a chance that the international world could see these alliances somewhat differently? Per Haqqani, “Most international interlocutors now prefer to express their concerns about Pakistani politics in private. Most disapprove of Imran Khan’s populism but do not wish to become targets of new conspiracy theories amongst his followers.” As far as MWM goes, the former ambassador says that “MWM is the only Shia party that has aligned itself with Imran Khan since 2014. Khan’s anti-Americanism and his antipathy towards Arab monarchies draw him close to a pro-Iran party like MWM.”

However, former ambassador Abdul Basit tells The News that the US or Saudi Arabia both wouldn’t really have an issue with MWM since they [PTI and MWM] will be in the opposition in any case. According to Basit, the PTI allying with the JI in KP “would create an interesting situation...Will the PTI follow the JI discipline or will JI resign to IK’s proclivities? Who will follow whom? It is possible that the JI may have some objections to the nomination of Ali Amin Gandapur as CM of KP. Let’s see.”

Professor Ali Jan, a Lahore-based academic, summarises the situation thus: “The PTI aligning with the JI is strategic. The party has also seriously dented the JI’s vote bank in KP. I think it’s in the nature of populism to be all things to all people while JI has a stricter vision of what they mean by ideology. The PTI really doesn’t have an ideology beyond the incorruptible Khan vs the corrupt system. Everything else is strategic in my opinion.”But what about the PTI and MWM? Jan feels that “while the PTI might be using MWM strategically, it has serious danger of turning sectarian. MWM is accused of being ‘Iranian stooges’ and were allegedly ‘celebrating’ during the recent strikes into Pakistan by Iran. It’s a path the PTI should avoid even though it may be their only chance to get reserved seats in the centre.”