Mainstreaming militancy through ballot

January 9, 2022

Proscribed groups are increasingly participating in elections at various levels. What does this mean for national politics?

Mainstreaming militancy through ballot

Equipped with brooms and shovels, hundreds of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) workers took part in a cleanliness campaign in various neighbourhoods of Karachi on January 2. They said the drive was part of their upcoming local government election campaign in the city. The polls are to be held in March or April.

“With its anti-blasphemy commitment, the TLP will gain significant victories in the local government polls in Karachi,” says Shabbir Attari, a TLP activist in Karachi’s Korangi neighbourhood. “We are confident of winning the city’s mayorship.”

The TLP is among several religious sect groups, functioning on the blurred line between non-violent religious extremism and violent militancy, that want their share of the pie in the upcoming local government elections, particularly in urban centres like Karachi. Some of them are standing as party candidates; others have tickets from some less-known political fronts. In some cases, alliances have been formed with major political parties and independent groups.

In recent years, the government, under its unannounced policy of ‘mainstreaming militants’, has been encouraging several religious groups, proscribed or otherwise, to take part in electoral politics instead of using violent means. Some of the proscribed religious groups are now taking part in elections. In the process, they are becoming actors in mainstream electoral politics. Many of their workers have come to the realisation that this is the only way to be rid of their not so defendable past.

Studies on mainstreaming of militants globally suggest that it has worked well in some situations. In Nepal, for example, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) abandoned its armed struggle, moderated its demands, contested elections and joined the political mainstream. However, this hasn’t worked well in Pakistan in the past. None of the candidates, groups, or leaders have chosen moderation or renounced violence.

The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, a violent Barelvi sectarian group, is a case in point. It was formed in 2016 following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a policeman who killed Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, in 2011, over his opposition to blasphemy laws.

After pulling big crowds, and organising violent street protests on the issue of Khatam-i-Nabuwat (the finality of prophethood) and blasphemy laws, the TLP took part in the 2018 general elections. It emerged as Pakistan’s fifth most popular party, finishing third in terms of votes polled for the Punjab Assembly, surpassing the Pakistan Peoples Party, and winning two provincial assembly seats from Karachi.

Despite polling a significant number of votes in the 2018 general elections, the TLP continued to organise violent protests. This compelled the government to declare it a proscribed outfit. However, after weeklong protests in November that led to violent clashes that killed 11 people and left over 250 others injured in Islamabad, the TLP was able to pressure the federal government into unbanning the party.

With deep societal roots and significant following, some of the sectarian groups choose to help mainstream political parties and independent candidates win their elections.

The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a sectarian group that was banned in 2012 over suspected links with terror outfits, quietly contested the local government elections in 2015 in Karachi under the banner of the Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party (PRHP) and won nine seats at various levels. The ASWJ chief, Maulana Aurangzeb Farooqi, contested NA-238, a National Assembly constituency in Karachi and was placed second, bagging more than 19,000 votes despite his name being on the Fourth Schedule, a list of individuals suspected of terrorism and/or extremist sectarianism under Section 11EE of the ATA 1997.

Earlier operating as Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Millat-i-Islamia Pakistan before both were banned, the party had emerged as a key Deobandi group, attracting aggressive youth from urban centres of Pakistan.

Happy with their success in the 2016 electoral fights, including winning a provincial assembly seat (PP-78) from Jhang and local government seats in Karachi in 2015, ASWJ leaders actively propagated the idea that the group had abandoned its anti-Shia rhetoric and joined the mainstream electoral politics. On December 7, the ASWJ Karachi leaders, in a meeting presided over by Farooqi, decided to take an active part in the upcoming local government elections in the metropolis.

The Milli Muslim League, a party backed by Jamaat ud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed from the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek platform, took part in the local government elections in cantonment boards across the country in September.

Ebad Ahmed, a journalist covering religious parties in Karachi, says that the failure of mainstream political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf to deliver basic services had created a political vacuum that the TLP and the ASWJ now sought to exploit.

“Compared to general elections, it is easier to gain successes in local government polls because the constituencies are smaller,” Ahmed tells The News on Sunday. He says that through its cleanliness campaign in Karachi, the TLP has, in effect, initiated a door-to-door campaign. This is a tactic successfully used by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement founder Altaf Hussain, in the party’s early days.

Given their deep societal roots and significant following, the sectarian groups can also help mainstream political parties or independent candidates win their elections. After the 2018 general elections, the ASWJ released a list of the 70 PTI candidates it supported on various National Assembly seats across the country.

A law enforcement official, who is involved in the crack down on sectarian militant outfits, says that participation of groups engaged in militancy and intolerance can hijack and radicalise electoral processes through exploitation of sensitive issues like blasphemy. “There should be some mechanism to stop such groups from taking part in the elections,” the official tells TNS.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Pakistan deals only with parties registered with it. Banning a party for violence is a job for the Interior Ministry.

The writer is a staff member of The News and a Resilience Fellow on Extortion at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC). He can be reached at He tweets at @zalmayzia

Mainstreaming militancy through ballot