Islamabad (dpa) – Neither billions of dollars in US aid nor the military muscle America occasionally flexes inside Pakistan as part of its global war on terrorism have defeated Islamic extremism inside the country.
But ironically, the extremists are defeating themselves as around 80 million Pakistanis prepare to vote in crucial parliamentary elections next Monday.
Riding on the wave of hatred towards the US following its invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the Muttahida-Majlis-e-Ammal (MMA), a religious alliance of six Islamic parties, won nearly one-sixth of the seats of Pakistan’s National Assembly the following year as well as control of the local government in the important North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
What a difference one election cycle makes. While anti-American sentiment remains strong in Pakistan’s strife-torn north-western region, political support there for the religious parties has dropped sharply after the Islamic extremists turned on their own people.
Instead of fighting US-led forces across the border in Afghanistan, militant groups including the Taliban and al-Qaeda have killed more than 1,000 Pakistani security personnel, political workers and civilians in a 13-month suicide bombing campaign.
Dozens of music shops, girl’s schools and barber shops were also destroyed, and women were warned to wear burkhas in many parts of the NWFP under threat of death in a bid by militants to enforce a Taliban-style religious code.
Voters are blaming the MMA for encouraging and backing the militants, and the Muslim-based political parties are expected to be punished at the polls.
“I love Islam and follow anyone who promises me they will work for its glory. That is why I voted for MMA in the last elections, but now I repent,” said Wali Mohammed, a shopkeeper in the NWFP capital of Peshawar. “These mullahs delivered nothing but violence. The Taliban continued their violent activities under their noses and they did nothing to stop them.”
Anger at the religious parties is widespread across the province, which borders Afghanistan and includes the ungoverned tribal areas where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have regrouped under the protection of local warlords.
“According to several assessments, progressive parties like the (secular) Awami National Party are going to lead,” said Ismail Khan, a Peshawar-based journalist and analyst.
Besides suffering from public anger over its inability to contain bloodshed, the MMA had an internal implosion, splitting late last year on whether to boycott the upcoming elections.
One faction led by the fundamentalist Jamaat Islami is boycotting the polls, leaving Jamiat Ulma-e-Islam, the other main Muslim party, alone to battle secular and nationalist parties that are increasingly gaining ground in the province as a result of the public revulsion to violence.
The same pattern of liberal, secular political parties dominating the election is expected across the country next week, according to recent opinion polls.
A survey released Monday showed that 50 per cent of voters supported the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The party is capitalizing on public sympathy and anger over the assassination last December of its leader, pro-democracy icon Benazir Bhutto, a vocal critic of Islamic radicalism, who was allegedly killed by pro-Taliban militants.
The survey, conducted by the US-based International Republican Institute, also showed 22 per cent were willing to vote for the Pakistan Muslim League of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, another moderate opposition party.
Voters expressed growing concern with Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan, with 73 per cent agreeing that religious extremism was a serious problem. In addition, 65 per cent said the presence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the country was a serious problem, the survey said.
The Pakistani magazine Newsline said in a separate survey that the MMA was expected to win only eight seats in the national parliament compared to 111 for Bhutto’s PPP.
If the outlawed Taliban were allowed to participate in the elections, only 1 per cent of the public would vote for them, a survey by the US-based group Terror Free Tomorrow said.
Pakistani voters are desperate for a solution after months of political turmoil and suicide attacks, and are on the cusp of ushering in dramatic change after more than eight years of military-backed rule that some analysts say has only benefited Islamic militancy.
Khan said Muslim-based groups like the MMA are being increasingly marginalized and must rethink their political strategy or risk being dumped by the public altogether.