Democracy Is Back in Pakistan as Religious Parties Emerge as Serious Political Force

Article excerpt

Prof. M.M. Ali is a Washington, DC-based specialist on South Asia and a consultant with the United Nations Development Program.

It took more than a month after the Oct. 10 elections for Pakistan's political parties to agree on a coalition government. With no single party having obtained a clear majority, the three leading contenders--the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam group), Pakistan People's Party (PPP), and the Majlise-Muttahida Mahaz (MMA, comprising six Islamic parties)--went through a variety of contortions before finally reaching a compromise. Eventually the Muslim League (Q), with the help of a handful of break-away PPP members terming themselves the PPP Forward Bloc, was able to come up with 172 members to achieve a one-member parliamentary majority. Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a politician from Baluchistan province, was elected leader of the National Assembly and hence Pakistan's new prime minister. Almost all the PPP Forward Bloc members have been named ministers in the new cabinet. Subsequent weeks saw the Forward Bloc increase in numbers and join the National Assembly's governing ranks.

Jamali is Pakistan's 20th prime minister, and the first from Baluchistan. The most significant aspect of the country's current political landscape, however, is the emergence of religious parties as a political force to be reckoned with. Although the MMA did not join the ruling coalition, it is being accorded political respect for the first time in Pakistan's 54-year history. The MMA leadership played a significant role during the post-election political negotiations. The faces of the Jamaate-Islami's Qazi Husain Ahmed and Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, as well as of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat-e-Islami Pakistan, are now familiar ones in households throughout the country.

While there are those who suggest that it was pressure from Washington that kept the MMA out of the government, this is not the case. The MMA is not a cohesive political party, but rather a coalition formed purely for electoral purposes. Its members belong to different religious schools of thought, often in opposition to each other. Although Pakistan came into being in 1947 as a separate homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, the country's Islamic organizations have always existed on the fringes of political life. Only the Jamaat-e-Islami has been organized to any degree, and even it has never fared terribly well in national elections. Not until the 1980s, during the regime of Gen. Zia ul-Haq, did Pakistan's religious parties receive government patronage, gaining ground during the following decade with the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban.

It is highly doubtful that the MMA will remain a cohesive force either within the National Assembly or outside it. The performance of MMA state governments in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan, a region bordering Afghanistan, will do much to determine its political future. Whatever its national presence, however, the MMA's emergence as a political force in Pakistan does have regional significance.

The Muslim League (Q) comprises former members of Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League and/or others who enjoy local influence and are out to cash in by hanging on to Pervez Musharraf's coattails. The election's biggest losers were the parties associated with Musharraf's two predecessors: Sharif's Muslim League, and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). With the formation of the Forward Bloc by some of its members, the latter is becoming badly splintered. If it is able to form a coalition government in the Sindh province, PPP may consider itself lucky. The Muslim League (Q) has formed its government in the country's largest province, Punjab.

The election's most contentious issue was the constitutional changes Musharraf instituted throughout 2002 via numerous ordinances, something the opposition groups strongly opposed. The MMA and the PPP continue to term the ordinances "extra judicial" and want them abrogated. …