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Opinion

September 20, 2018
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Balloting for religion

Opinion

September 20, 2018

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One of the aspects of Election 2018 was the significantly large percentage of votes going to far-right religious parties, including the MMA and perhaps most notably the TLP, which has sprung to prominence in the country at an astonishing speed.

In 2018, out of the top 10 parties in the country, religious parties gained10.7 percent of the popular vote compared with the 7.4 percent of votes they gained in 2013 and the 2.5 percent of all votes they obtained in 2008. This is not necessarily a sign that people are becoming more religiously-oriented. After all, Pakistan has always been a Muslim-majority country. But there is no doubt that the influence of religious groups has increased.

The voting patterns also indicate deepening divisions within mainstream parties as they splinter into factions – a development that favoured religious groups. The 6,018,291 votes claimed by independents in 2018 – the largest figure in the last three elections – is a reflection of this, with individuals breaking away from parties and winning on the basis of personal influence and a hold over their constituencies.

In 2018, the MQM’s decline was also immensely important in terms of results while the TLP proved itself as a rising power with 2,234,316 votes, which translates into 4.21 percent of the popular vote. This vote was spread across constituencies, notably those in Punjab.

The TLP’s rising power and the potential impact of these groups on politics has already been demonstrated. In 2017, the dharna staged at Faizabad weakened the PML-N and outline the helplessness of the then government against such forces. This has happened once more, with the TLP acting as a lobby group for the removal of Atif Mian from the Economic Advisory Council. It can undoubtedly spread its ideology into other spheres of life in the future.

Chitral, a region where the Sunni and Ismaili communities have lived in harmony for decades, is a good example of the havoc that orthodox religious groups can play. After winning the NA-1 seat in 2002, the MMA played a role in creating divisions and attempting to impose its hardline version of Islam on a community where religion is practised without an open display.

This time too, the MMA again won the seat, partially as a result of deeper divisions within mainstream parties, and the decline in the popularity of the PPP, which had lost some of its key players to the PTI and other groups despite the fact that it has won a significant number of votes in its area of traditional strength.

Apart from its negative impact in a region where various communities have been able to maintain harmony, the MMA has also extended its influence to the Kalash tribes, which comprise 6,000 people who live in the valleys of Chitral. Attempts to convert them have increased over the past three decades or so, reducing the Kalash population who have an ancient and anthropologically significant past and have, in some cases, simply chosen to move away from their pagan religion for a better future. This is a tragic situation and raises apprehension that it will increase under MMA influence. Chitral’s Ismaili community will also feel the impact of the Right ruling the region once more.

We will need to ask ourselves the following question as new religious groups demonstrate that they may have the power to gain ground in parliament through the vote – something that has not happened through Pakistan’s history: with religious parties traditionally gaining a handful of seats, what kind of country do we see for the future?

If we want the tolerant nation that Muhammad Ali Jinnah sought and which Imran Khan has said that he wishes to recreate, a great deal has to be done. Mainstream parties must initially stand together on key issues. It is no secret that mainstream political parties hesitate to take on religious groups for fear that they will either suffer at the polls or face other forms of aggression from religious parties.

Most religious parties gain their strength from madressahs set up across the country and the practice of luring young people to these institutions under the promise of obtaining food, shelter and education. This is a difficult promise to set aside for poverty-stricken people in a country where almost 50 percent of children suffer from stunting and wasting. Mainstream parties need to take up these issues and offer alternative welfare measures to the poor.

Studies from Dir, for example, suggest that women in the region who appreciated the Benazir Income Support Programme wished to vote for the PPP. But they were dissuaded from doing so by their male family members who had allied themselves with other groups, including the MMA. Organisations working to educate people, especially women, on their voting rights must persuade them that their ballot is secret and their own personal business. This is difficult in a country that maintains so many patriarchal values.

However, we cannot escape the truth. The looming question that now stands before us is whether our major parties truly seek change. The decimation of the ANP leadership over the last two decades sends a strong message.

The fact that it won two percent of the total number of votes in 2008 and 1.5 percent of votes in 2018 reflects that even though the party retains some base of support, the party is struggling to respond to the challenges that it faces. These challenges come in the form of bullets, threats and open fatwas against ANP leaders. The assassinations have come rapidly and quite clearly for all its own flaws and weaknesses. No party targeted in this fashion can continue to stand in the field of play.

Any strategy must unite the parties that claim they want a modern, progressive Pakistan. Most of our mainstream parties, including the PTI, have made this claim. However, they need to substantiate these claims, not just by standing up to the Right, but also by taking measures to win the hearts of the people and gain their support by introducing effective welfare measures.

Opening up governor’s houses to the people, planting trees, and turning the PM House – which, critics have pointed out, doesn’t even belong to Imran Khan – into a place of research won’t be enough. Alongside measures to offer school meals to children, expand the social security net, improve health delivery, and adopt steps that can save our children from slow and painful starvation, our economic policies also need to focus on lifting the people out of their misery.

It is the poor and jobless who often take up the guns offered by the religious right. They need to be offered something else to help them open new horizons and find an alternative to the hatred that is taught to them as a way of life.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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