That’s all folks!

Mainstream political parties are not willing to surrender their lead role in politics to religio-political parties


There are several religion-based political parties in Pakistan that pursue Islamic politico-cultural agenda. Their electoral strength is limited, making it impossible for a single Islamic party to come to power at the federal or provincial level. However, if these Islamic parties create a coalition, or join with some regional or nationwide mainstream political parties, they can share power. Their political clout depends on their capacity to mobilise their religious loyalists for pursuing some political agenda. Some of these parties can bring out their religious loyalists to streets and challenge the government. The Islamic parties that control religious seminaries or have made in-roads into state-run colleges and universities can mobilise their students in support of their demands.

Regional and mainstream political parties recognise the importance of Islam-based parties because of their loyal supporters and want to win them over when they want to challenge the government in the streets. However, the mainstream political parties are not willing to surrender their lead role in politics to Islamic political parties.

The march from Karachi to Islamabad and the dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman has all the features that an Islam-based party can display in Pakistan. This has been a successful demonstration of organisation, discipline and loyalty on part of Maulana’s religious followers. This political agitation has embarrassed the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government, especially Prime Minister Imran Khan. It has also exposed the inability of the parliament to manage and resolve the conflict caused by the protest. However, the JUI-F protest is not expected to achieve its principal demand – the resignation of Imran Khan.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman is adamant in his demands because he himself suffered badly in the 2018 general elections. Even though his party got some seats, he lost his seat which knocked him out of the corridors of power after over ten years. His Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from 2002-2007. From 2008 to 2018, he enjoyed the privilege of being the chairman of the National Assembly Committee on Kashmir. Now, he is completely out of the power structure. As he has no stake in the current power arrangements, he wants to pull them down as early as possible. Further, as Imran Khan took jibes and mocked the Maulana in his public meetings during the pre-election period, the Maulana now wants to take political revenge.

The march and dharna by the JUI-F shows the complexities of the relationship between the Islamic parties and the mainstream parties. Both want to cooperate as well as outsmart one another, depending on the issues under consideration and the calculations of cost and benefit of working together or maintaining a safe distance.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s street agitation was a shrewd political move to acquire the leadership role among the opposition ranks. He realised that the two major political parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) were going through a difficult time as their top leaders were under arrest and on trial on corruption-related matters. This had created a space at the leadership level in the opposition. He thought that by demonstrating his street power he would leave no other alternative for major opposition parties other than to fall in line, confirming his top position among the opposition ranks. His triumph was, when on the first night of dharna, the top leaders of two major parties were standing with him as he addressed his followers.

The two major opposition parties share the Maulana’s agenda of building pressure on the government and seeking the resignation of PM Imran Khan. However, they do not want to be attached with him in a subsidiary relationship by fully supporting the dharna (protest).

Though the PML-N and the PPP are extremely angry with the PTI government and they view the on-going accountability process as political victimisation, both are not in favour of total collapse of the current political system. The PML-N knows that it is the lead opposition party in the National Assembly and has enough electoral support in the Punjab to emerge as the majority party from that province in the next elections. This hope makes the PML-N reluctant to compromise its prominent position by fully joining the Maulana.

The PPP has stakes in the current political system as it rules Sindh. It hopes to perform well in that province whenever next elections are held. Therefore, it is not in a hurry like Maulana Fazlur Rehman to topple the political system.

The PML-N and the PPP know that even if Imran Khan’s government comes to an end, there is no guarantee that the accountability process will shut down. Confrontation in the streets is not expected to resolve their accountability problems.

No other Islam-based political party is supporting the JUI-F. The JUI faction led by the son of Maulana Samiul Haq is aloof from the JUI-F agitation. The madrassah establishment sharing his religious denomination has decided to stay away. The Jamaat-i-Islami is not supporting his protest. The Barelvi and Shia political groups would not support him.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s dream of becoming the main leader of opposition and knocking out the PTI government is not expected to realise in the absence of support from other political parties and groups. The dynamics of Pakistani politics and the political interests of other parties would not let all political forces come together under the Maulana’s umbrella.

The writer is a political analyst and tweets at @har132har

Fazl's Azadi March: That’s all folks!