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July 12, 2018

Leaning to the right


July 12, 2018

As Pakistan and its military continue to fight a courageous battle against militants both in tribal areas and in other parts of the country, it seems that a larger number of religious parties which lean sharply to the right have entered the political mainstream – and have been permitted to do so.

It is somewhat unclear why the ECP has allowed the candidates of these groups to file papers, given the country’s urgent need to demonstrate that it is not supporting terrorism. As per election rules, groups engaged in militancy or violence are to be kept out of the balloting process. We have already seen Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution – emphasising that a candidate must be ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’, in other words of good character – being used to disqualify a list of candidates. The list has grown rapidly through 2017 and 2018.

Yet, it seems that men like Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), are being seen as righteous. Rizvi openly abused his opponents in the foulest of languages, blocked Islamabad in 2017, hampering all normal activity, and essentially blackmailed the government into making a series of concessions. It is hard to see how the man who openly supports convicted and executed murderer Mumtaz Qadri can be seen as someone who fits the description of an honest, upright and honourable person mentioned in the constitution.

In May 2018, an alleged member of the TLP was arrested after shooting and injuring then interior minister Ahsan Iqbal after accusing him of having committed blasphemy. Few irrational people would uphold that charge; Iqbal was fortunate to escape with his life. The TLP will be contesting the 2018 elections under the symbol of the crane.

There are other parties which could be considered even more dangerous. The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat – a reincarnation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the hardline Sunni group founded in Jhang in 1985 – is among them. Its leader Ahmed Ludhianvi is believed to be behind various sectarian attacks targeting Shias. The group is thought to be responsible for the deaths of some 2,500 Shias, many of them killed as they marked important religious occasions such as those held to remember the death of Imam Hussain on Ashura.

Ludhianvi was recently allowed access to his assets through an order of the caretaker chief minister of Punjab. It is, of course, questionable if caretaker governments, whose designated role is to conduct fair elections, be making major policy decisions. The government has since somewhat backtracked from the decision, saying that Ludhianvi was only given partial relief in terms of access to his bank accounts. However, the ASWJ is expected to field candidates in various constituencies.

Also in the contest is the Milli Muslim League, the political wing of the banned Jamaat-ud-Daawa. Its leader Saifullah Khalid was designated a global terrorist by the US in April. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of the JuD and Lashkar-e-Taiba, is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 170 people were killed. Pakistan has remained under extreme pressure from India and the US to bring him to justice. The JuD has also been designated a foreign terrorist group by both the US and UN. The ECP refused to allocate the MML a symbol, but its candidates will run as independents. The ASWJ’s candidates are expected to do the same.

There are also some other right-wing groups in the run for the elections. Various factions of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam also adhere to orthodox views, notably on women and minorities. There have also been suggestions that some, especially the Maulana Sami-ul-Haq faction of the group, which is supported by the PTI, are key backers of the Taliban in Pakistan. The Jamaat-e-Islami has also been a part of Pakistan’s political scene since the country came into existence, even though it had initially opposed its creation.

Other forces such as the Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith, contesting under the symbol of spectacles, and at least five other groups with religion at the centre of their electoral agenda are also in the run for the 2018 elections. The political spectrum in Pakistan seems to have swung quite sharply to the right. This is worrying given that Pakistan has recently been added to the grey list by the 35-member global Financial Action Task Force on the basis of the country’s support for terrorists. This has important economic implications, and does not augur well for the future of the country, or for gaining confidence of investors at a time when Pakistan is already becoming increasingly isolated from the world.

In addition to these parties, candidates with credentials which can be questioned in terms of their promotion of sectarianism and extremism are being fielded by mainstream parties. Finding ‘electables’ is, after all, the main slogan in this election. These include Aamir Liaquat Hussain, the highly controversial and sometimes bizarre TV entertainer who has been banned by Pemra several times for promoting hatred on his TV shows or on social media. He will be contesting on a key Karachi seat, NA-245, for the PTI against Dr Farooq Sattar of the MQM-Pakistan and a list of other candidates. Rana Sanaullah of the PML-N, who has been granted a ticket for an NA seat in Faisalabad, has also been a man who has kept up liaisons with various extremist forces active in Punjab.

Mainstream parties should be asking themselves if it is wise to field such candidates. But then, winning appears to be the only thing on their minds. Perhaps the future of the country is of less significance to them.

The mainstreaming of extremist parties, which had till now remained on the fringe, is a dangerous trend. It draws them right into the heart of Pakistan’s politics. It is correct that there are some left-leaning groups which are also contesting the polls, but these forces are essentially extremely small, and in some cases the tilt is more towards liberal ideologies. These groups also appear to have very little support either from private donors or from any other entity in the country. They are almost invisible in the ongoing election campaign.

In contrast to the TLP, which has its posters up in many places, some apparently suggesting a guaranteed place in heaven for voters, the left is absent. Some individuals have set up their own YouTube channels or have made use of other social media platforms to try and promote alternative point of views to move from the ideological narrative that is beginning to take a firmer grip on our country. But their voices are being heard by only a few. This is sad. In times such as ours, we badly need groups willing to stand with those most in need of help.

The chief question that arises: along with efforts to keep corrupt elements out of politics, shouldn’t we also be working on keeping out those who may have been engaged in murder or even mass murder?. We should also be asking how allowing more extremism to creep into our country will possibly aid Pakistan and its standing in the world. The 2018 elections will clarify the position on this to a considerable degree. Our future lies ahead.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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