By Umair Javed
AN enduring question in the study of Pakistani politics has been the relative lack of success of religious parties in electoral politics. Barring the extremely dubious 2002 exercise, in no election have religious parties won more than 10 per cent of the vote. They have, at best, exercised coalition potential at various points during their history. This is somewhat puzzling given that when allowed to compete, parties espousing political Islam have attained some success in other Muslim-majority countries, such as Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.
The recent emergence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, and the display of Barelvi aggression in light of the Aasia Bibi acquittal, compel a review of the arguments around the future of political Islam in this country.
There are two linked trends associated with this topic. The first relates to their inability to do well in the polls: this is almost always traced back to their lack of organisational reach within the rural masses; their inability to overcome ethnic, biradari-based, and other social cleavages that seem to have been politicised prior to the spread of political Islam in the country, and the bare minimum ability of mainstream parties to cater to the material needs of the electorate through patronage politics. This last one, in particular, is said to provide a major electoral advantage over Islamist parties. In geographical areas where the Islamists have sporadically held power — such as the JUI-F in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — they mimic the patron-client behaviour of mainstream parties to win elections.
The reason why the state will fail to keep the religious right at bay is because far too many inches have been given to it in the past.
The second trend inadvertently questions the relevance of the larger puzzle: What difference does it make whether religious parties actually win elections or not? The idea behind this is that they use street agitation to get what they want.