All that religiopolitical jazz

While religiopolitical parties underperformed in some places in the recent elections, they seem to be making inroads in others

All that religiopolitical jazz


lection 2024 has transformed the electoral landscape to a considerable extent. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf backed independents have fared well despite systemic hiccups and challenges from within and outside the party. The PTI maintained its electioneering momentum by building an anti-establishment and anti-Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz/ Pakistan Peoples Party narrative. The narrative may have been helped by successive judicial decisions against the party leaders immediately before the election. It paid off with a good number of seats in the National Assembly and the Provincial Assembly of the Punjab besides a near two-thirds majority in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly. Religiopolitical parties seem to be making inroads in some places while underperforming in others.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Jamaat-i-Islami failed to perform at both the NA and PA levels. The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl challenged the overwhelming PTI popularity on a considerable number of seats but failed to prevail. The other mainstream parties, such as the PPP, the PML-N, the ANP and the PTI-P, were pushed to the margins in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The performance of the JUI-F, despite a strong wave of PTI ascendancy, cannot be ignored.

The JI had issued party tickets to 243 candidates for a total of 266 National Assembly seats. It fared relatively well in Karachi in terms of the number of votes but did not win any seats. In the recent local government polls in Karachi it had given a tough time to the PPP after the MQM boycotted the elections. This momentum was kept alive by the JI campaign but it failed to translate it into number of seats won. This explains its resentment and protests in Karachi, levelling charges of rigging against the winning parties i.e. the MQM and the PPP. JI’s emir Siraj-ul Haq has tendered his resignation slightly ahead of the end of his term.

The JUI-F’s performance in Sindh has been impressive. It has bagged a reasonable number of votes after it contested a large number of seats for the first time. This performance is noticeable because it has developed inroads recently across the province through its madrassah networks in the heartland of inclusive Sindhi Islam. The spread of Deobandi madrassah network in Sindhi cultural and religious landscape is astonishing. This is all the more important since JUI-F’s performance cannot be linked this time to a wave of emotions like its 2002 victories in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan in the backdrop of 9/11 or the TLP’s rise in 2018 by dint of Khatm-i-Nabuwwat and Islamophobia rhetoric. As such, its presence holds the potential for further expansion and consolidation in the future.

The trend also points towards shifting dynamics and trends of sectarian demographic profile of various areas of Sindh being expressed through electoral politics. For instance, when JUI-F staged a sit-in in Islamabad along the Kashmir Highway, a large number of vehicles carrying number plates of Sindh and Balochistan were observed. These vehicles stayed there for many days until the dharna was called off. This was seen as symptomatic of the increasing support base of this religiopolitical party in Sindh and Balochistan. JUI-F workers are staging protests in Sindh and Balochistan against alleged electoral rigging. None of the JUI factions besides the JUI-F, could perform in elections 2024.

The JUI-F and the JI did mention the Gaza crisis to garner support on the basis of sympathy with oppressed Palestinians. Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was invited to speak in JUI’s Million March in Karachi, held a few weeks before the elections. Similarly, the JI held many marches to protest the situation in Gaza and clubbed them with its election campaigns in major cities. Historically, religiopolitical parties have been using pan-Islamic issues, discourse and symbolism to muster their domestic support and transform it into electoral strength.

The Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen is the first Shia-sect religiopolitical party to have emerged as an electoral entity, winning a National Assembly seat (NA-37) from Kurram, a Shia stronghold. The MWM has been inching closer to the PTI, which has announced a coalition with the MWM in the Centre and the Punjab in a bid to secure reserved seats. The earlier Shia-backed parties such as Tehreek-i-Jafaria Pakistan and Sipah-i-Muhammad Pakistan did not participate as political parties in electoral politics. Instead, those engaged in advocating rights and interests of the community besides some of the outfits that engaged in sectarian violence.

The Markazi Muslim League, the political face of Jamaat-ud Dawa, also fielded its candidates in many constituencies in northern and central Punjab. It did not secure any seats and was able to bag a reasonable number of votes in only a few constituencies. For instance, Muhammad Yousaf of the MML contested the provincial assembly election on PP-78, home town constituency of JUD supremo Hafiz Saeed, and secured 961 votes only. In the same constituency, the JI polled 780 votes, the TLP 790 votes and the PAT 619 votes. In the same vein, in JUD headquarter constituency of Muridke, the MML could secure only 956 votes. The performance of religiopolitical parties in some constituencies of central Punjab has been abysmally poor.

The Pakistan Sunni Tehreek or Sunni Tehreek and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, both Barelvi denominational political parties, had joined hands to contest the elections. Sunni Tehreek nearly merged itself into the TLP but the alliance did not do well. As opposed to the 2018 elections, the TLP could not impact the political landscape beyond securing a Punjab assembly seat. The popularity of religiopolitical parties depends largely on rightist ideological narratives and on highlighting sectarian differences. These parties do not perform on the politics of people-centric and development issues.

Although the TLP positioned itself as a mainstream party by offering an inclusive manifesto, addressing issues of economy, women participation and inflation, its sloganeering did not fly and compared to 2018, it underperformed. Most religiopolitical parties have to carry a huge baggage of their past close association with the establishment. Voters in this election seem to have despised this. Rightist ideologies, ideologues and parties have received favours from the state in Pakistan throughout its history. Overall, the people have consistently rejected these. Except for a few instances, such as the 2002 elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan held in the backdrop of events related to 9/11, Pakistanis have never really bought the politics of religiopolitical parties.

The writer 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 His X handle: @AbrarZahoor1 

All that religiopolitical jazz