The shrinking role of religious-political parties in Pakistan’s general elections
In 2024, more than 60 nations, including Pakistan, will head to the polls, making it one of the biggest election years in the world’s history. The year will put a spotlight on the status of democracy around the world and define its future trajectory. Globally, Western liberal democracy has been backsliding as civilizational populism, authoritarianism and the far-right groups have surged significantly.
Though populism in Pakistan has gained traction and democratic governance has been replaced with hybrid forms of rule, the electoral appeal of religious-political parties has consistently declined. This is despite the fact that religiosity has increased in the country and the popularity of mainstream political parties has relatively weakened.
Against this backdrop, it is important to unpack the expected performance of Pakistan’s religious-political parties in the February 8 elections and their impact on the final outcome. As compared to 12 parties in the 2018 elections, 23 religious parties out of the registered 175 registered political parties are participating in the upcoming polls. Since 2013, the vote share of various religious-political parties, especially the smaller ones, has declined persistently across Pakistan.
This downward trend is likely to persist in the upcoming elections as well. Ahead of the 2013 elections, the six-party religious alliance of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) disintegrated and the two main coalition parties, Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JIP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF) contested elections individually and only managed to win 3 and 10 seats, respectively. It bears mention that all of these seats were won in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pashtun majority areas of Balochistan province. Likewise, in the 2018 elections, religious parties secured 5.2 million out of 54.3 million polled votes.
The electoral appeal of religious-political parties has consistently declined. This is despite the fact that religiosity has increased in the country and the popularity of mainstream political parties has relatively weakened.
Abdul Basit Khan
Barring the 2002 elections, when the MMA due to the ‘war on terror’ and rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan, managed to form governments in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces and emerged as the main opposition party in the center, religious-political parties have failed to capture the imagination of Pakistani voters.
The voting patterns in rural Pakistan are primarily determined by patronage and bloc politics as well as regional and nationalist trends. Meanwhile, the majority of Pakistan’s urban middle-class votes for mainstream political parties and swing voters in the main cities are swayed by issue-specific party stances such as development and governance. More recently, the emergence of social media, the cult following of major political figures as well as the presence of 56.86 million young voters (up from 46.43 million in 2018) who are 45 percent of the total 130 million voters in the February 8 polls, will reshape Pakistan’s electoral politics. In a way, the penetration of social media and broader outreach of mainstream political parties in the country’s peripheral areas has blurred the rural-urban divide in voting patterns.
Against this backdrop, the appeal of religious-political parties who rely on niche vote banks is unlikely to gain traction. The electoral prospects of Islamist parties only improve when religiously-sensitive issues dominate Pakistan’s national politics, as witnessed in the 2002 and 2018 elections. However, this year, the major issues dominating Pakistan’s national politics are soaring inflation, a poor economic situation, unemployment and civil-military relations.
Given the above, the religious-political parties, despite their efforts to re-orient themselves to more broad-based political and socio-economic issues confronting Pakistan as apparent from their election manifestos, are less likely to do well. Furthermore, this time around the religious-political parties have not formed any alliances and are contesting elections individually, which will further undermine their electoral prospects, nationally and provincially. The vote banks of Islamist parties are scattered across Pakistan and the absence of electoral alliances will not translate these votes into a substantial number of national and provincial assembly seats.
Nevertheless, the religious-political parties will retain their influence in Pakistan’s crisis-prone politics as pressure groups, by participating in electoral politics. Besides, in the closely-contested constituencies of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, JUIF and TLP could emerge as major spoilers for the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI)’s independent candidates. It is important to mention that in the 2018 elections, TLP deprived the PMLN of at least 15 national assembly seats in Punjab. A similar pattern could repeat itself, albeit in a qualitatively different manner, in the February 8 polls.
JUIF, apart from playing a potential spoiler’s role, could emerge as an important kingmaker if it manages to secure 8-10 national assembly seats from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan’s Pashtun majority areas. The party is considered quite close to the PMLN and in a coalition setup it could secure a good political bargain.
However, other religious parties will struggle hard to retain their space and relevance, beyond being pressure groups and grassroots social movements, in Pakistan’s rapidly evolving political landscape.
– The author is a Senior Associate Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X: @basitresearcher.