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Militant groups linked to known terror organizations are fully prepared to participate in Pakistan’s elections next month either independently or in affiliation with unknown religious political entities.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) seems helpless and unable to stop the ‘political mainstreaming’ of extremist elements who may have backing and support from elements of the Pakistani state.

The most prominent extremist outfits contesting the coming elections include Milli Muslim League (MML). The League is an offshoot of Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which is headed by Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, who has been designated as a terrorist by the United States.

Banned outfits going to polls

Another contestant is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which bears the legacy of Mumtaz Qadri, a security guard of the former Punjab governor Salman Taseer. The governor was killed in 2011 by Qadri for allegedly demanding changes to the draconian blasphemy law. Qadri, who was hanged in 2016, has become a symbol of unity for those who loved his resolute stand in support of the controversial law.

Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) is yet another aspirant for the polls. ASWJ is the political façade of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan — a radical group responsible for the genocide of the country’s minority Shiite Muslims. Both SSP and ASWJ are on the terror watchlist. ASWJ planned to contest elections through the Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party.

Another banned group Tehreek-i-Jafria Pakistan (TJP) — a Shiite Muslim sectarian religious organization registered with the ECP as Islami Tehreek Pakistan — will fight for provincial and national assembly seats.

“Our mainstreaming process is different from what other countries follow throughout the world for mainstreaming of radical outfits. They follow a set procedure and comply with the modules for proper identification and screening of terrorists,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former Awami National Party (ANP) senator, told Asia Times.

“Assessing the nature of crimes against the state and humanity and certification through a de-radicalization program is a prerequisite to ensure that violence is renounced, decommissioning done and condition met for the mainstreaming to start,” said Khattak, who is also an analyst, human rights activist and politician.

He said it was unfortunate that most of the 139 Pakistan-based entities, declared by the United Nations as terrorists, were doing business as usual – with just different names and changed identities. Tracing the origin of radicalization in Pakistan, Khattak claimed that real damage was done in the 1980s when Zia-ul-Haq radicalized the state and institutions through his Islamization process.

‘Mainstreamed’ extremists vs political parties

Major political parties are concerned about the growing involvement of extremists in national politics. During a meeting with the Election Commission last month many demanded that proscribed terror groups should not enter the political arena.

Parties said the ECP should be responsible for taking appropriate steps to foil attempts such as the National Action Plan (NAP) — a 20-point anti-militancy strategy that evolved in 2015 to fight terrorism.

The Constitution also puts restrictions on the activities of militant entities that turn to politics.

Ejaz Chaudhary, a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader and former Punjab president, told Asia Times: “During the meeting with the Election Commission last month, we [the PTI] pointed out that the proscribed organizations cannot contest elections under the law. Therefore, the authorities should come down hard on the banned outfits getting into the election fray.” It was the commission’s job, he said, to ensure that banned terror outfits did not field independent candidates or forge election alliances with unpopular parties registered with the commission.

The ANP’s Khattak said: “Once an organization is declared banned, it should be treated as such for the whole time to come. Under no circumstances should banned outfits be allowed to re-emerge with changed credentials.” It would not serve any purpose to allow restricted outfits to come back with a new face, he said.

New face, old body

Within weeks of the meeting with political parties, a four-member bench of the Election Commission rejected an application by the Milli Muslim League to register as a political party. The ECP said elements within the party had an affiliation with JuD — a claim that the League forcefully refuted.

However, insiders have revealed that the US State Department declared the League and its leadership terrorists in April this year, which forced the government to get tougher on the party.

Visibly upset with the commission’s decision, the MML has attempted to shrug off the ban and announced that more than 200 candidates of banned outfit will contest the forthcoming elections under the lesser-known ‘Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek’.

Dr Arif Alvi, chief whip and former secretary general of PTI, said: “The establishment should be worried about banned groups fielding ‘independent’ candidates in the upcoming election, as political parties have no mechanism to check this tendency.” He said it was a serious issue and the party would formulate a strategy once the nomination crisis was over.

In the past, the Pakistani state doled out huge sums to madrassas to “mainstream” the curricula of these institutions. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the Northwest, for instance, granted 300 million rupees (US$2.8 million) to Darul Uloom Haqqania seminary run by Maulana Samiul Haq, a religious scholar and politician; this was where Taliban leader Mullah Umer was trained. Similarly, Pakistan People’s Party in Sindh province allotted 150 acres of land to Dawat-i-Islami Trust to build an “International University.”

These skewed attempts at “mainstreaming” have the potential to plunge the country into a deep crisis of extremist militancy.

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