Shroud-wearing activists of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party shout slogans as they take part in a protest in Multan on July 8, 2018, after a sentencing decision against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Photo: AFP / SS Mirza

Pakistan’s hardline Islamist groups failed to bag enough seats in the recent elections to hold any power, but they certainly managed to dent the voter base of the traditional parties, making the ride easier for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Khan’s party emerged as the single largest party after the elections.

The Islamist parties got legitimacy as bona fide political entities, fielding candidates in 90% of the country’s constituencies. Moreover, a careful analysis of the Election Commission of Pakistan’s data reveals that the Islamist parties fared quite well as debutants.

Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, a far-right Sunni Barelvi sectarian group, polled 4% of the total votes, or 1.94 million of the 49 million cast in Wednesday’s election. The party propounds the enforcement of sharia laws and encourages protection of the controversial blasphemy-related clauses of the constitution.

Tehreek-i-Labbaik, headed by the firebrand leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi, caused the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the party of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif, to lose more than 30 seats in the National Assembly. However, it only won two seats in the Sindh Provincial Assembly and one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“They were supposed to be spoilers, not winners. Remember that gentleman with the pencil symbol in 1990 [in] NA1 [constituency], something like that,” Mohammad Taqi, a renowned columnist, doctor and analyst tweeted about the Islamist parties.

Weakening Sharif’s party

Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, a party backed by the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attack, Hafiz Saeed, showed a dismal performance, as none of its candidates won. The party got 164,000 votes and helped Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan in some crucial constituencies in Punjab province to rout the heavyweights of Nawaz Sharif’s party.

“These extremist parties were enlisted to cut to size the electoral strength of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and [this] was part of a greater game of pre-poll rigging which started right from the Panama leaks,” Pervaiz Rashid, a PML-N senator and former federal information minister in the Sharif cabinet, told Asia Times.

Rashid alleged that a sustained and systematic campaign was launched before the elections against Sharif’s party. Its candidates were arrested, harassed and forced to change loyalties in a bid to provide a walkover to other parties and weaken PML-N’s position. “These measures serve no purpose except to subvert the democracy and tarnish the image of the country abroad,” he stated.

A close look at the Election Commission’s constituency details points to a masterly executed plan to undermine PML-N’s winnability by misuse of the vote rejection rule. In some constituencies, the margin of victory was less than the rejected votes.

The Free and Fair Election Network – a non-governmental organization committed to an open parliament, good governance and fair elections in Pakistan – identified 35 such odd instances in its report on the election released on Friday. The Election Commission’s data show that polling staff rejected thousands of votes in each constituency, which is an uncommon trend.

Islamist groups spoiling votes

The details of individual constituencies on the Election Commission’s website reveal that the extremist outfits, which are registered as political parties under the Pakistani deep state’s de-radicalization drive, wreaked havoc on Nawaz Sharif’s party’s ability to win seats.

In the National Assembly constituency NA-66, PTI candidate Farrukh Altaf got 112,354 votes and was declared the winner. The runner-up Chaudhry Nadeem Khadim, a PML-N candidate, bagged 92,912 votes, while Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan secured 29,556 votes. If the Election Commission had not allowed Tehreek-i-Labbaik to contest the election, a good chunk of these votes would have gone to Sharif’s party and could have changed the result altogether.

Similarly, in NA-67 constituency, PTI spokesman Fawad Chaudhry polled 93,102 votes against the 82,475 votes garnered by his rival candidate Raja Matloob Mehdi of PML-N. Tehreek-i-Labbaik bagged 16,286 and deprived Sharif’s party of a seat.

Again, in the Punjab constituency NA-87, PTI’s Chaudhry Shoukat Ali Bhatti won with 165,618 votes against PML-N candidate Saira Tarar’s 157,453 votes. Tehreek-i-Labbaik and Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek’s combined votes in this constituency were only 46,246. There are more than 30 constituencies in Punjab, including NA-102, NA-105, and NA-108, where these two Islamist parties spoiled the votes for PML-N but failed to win seats.

However, some disagree with this approach.

“Traditionally Islamist groups get 7-10% [of the] votes in the elections, and this has happened since 1970; it’s not a new phenomenon,” Dr Farrukh Saleem said. “In the context of recent elections, both Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf believed in right-wing populism and both tried to attract conservative votes; how could we conclude that the TLP [Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan] and AAT [Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek] votes would have gone to PML-N if the former were not in the running?”

Saleem, an Islamabad-based columnist, economist and political scientist, claimed that people had bought the PTI narrative and voted for the party irrespective of the credentials of the candidates.

Nonetheless, Saleem agrees with allegations of election rigging. “There are three types of rigging, namely pre-poll, poll-day and post-poll, and there has always been an element of pre-poll rigging in every election held in the country,” he said, adding that conspiracy theories apart, both the political and military establishments played a role in pre-poll rigging this time.

Stepping away from allegations and counter-allegations, Rashid pointed out, “These sectarian and banned groups are not like the mainstream religio-political parties we had been working with since independence. They are extremist, radical and sectarian outfit having no faith in the constitution, rule of law and democratic dispensation.” Instead, they believe in violence, intimidation, and coercion and issue apostasy decrees against faithful Muslims and even kill them every now and then, he added.

“It does not matter how many seats the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz lost. But how these [Islamist] groups got registered with the Election Commission does matter.”

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