Radicals will soon be central to Pak democracy debate

Lahore: Several radical groups in Pakistan have already launched political campaigns in an attempt to establish a presence in the national parliament, and are also seeking to devalue the government’s anti-terror narrative.

According to an article published in The Diplomat, sectarian and other militant groups have obtained a strong footing to regain their political, electoral, and social space, despite broad counter terrorism efforts of the recent past denting such efforts.

In his article for The Diplomat, Umair Jamal, a Lahore-based journalist, says that while it is still “unclear whether the upcoming general election will strengthen the roots of democracy in the country, ..what is certain is that the election will bring radical forces to the center of any debates tied to the future of democracy in Pakistan.”

To substantiate this view, he cites the examples of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief, Hafiz Saeed, being given unprecedented security by the provincial police while leading Eid prayers in Lahore recently, or, the head of the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), a proscribed militant organisation, one of whose followers’ killed former Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, meeting various politicians at his residence to decide the names of candidates for various constituencies in Punjab.

Jamal also uses his article to express his concern over armed groups receiving tribal support to counter the nascent Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunhwa (KP), both of which were merged recently. He believes that representatives of these armed groups could soon find space within the country’s parliament.

He does not agree with the government’s view that radical groups which “don’t attack the state apparatus directly, should be given political space.

“This doesn’t bode well for mainstream political forces in the country. While political groups in Pakistan continue to face pressure from various non-democratic institutions, the narrative of extremist groups which also primarily target civilian forces is only going to increase their social, political, and religious constituencies in the country,” he warns.

What is most alarming is the fact that “extremist religious groups in Pakistan are not only focused on sectarianising Islam for electoral gain, but also focusing on a narrative that shows a conservative vision of the country and attacks any vision of a liberal and progressive Pakistan.”

This sort of pressure is pushing mainstream political parties in Pakistan to resort to the same religious tactics to secure their vote bank.

“If one looks at banners and posters which are being put on display across the country ahead of the election, many of them include references to religious texts, promise to transform Pakistan into a true Islamic state, vow to undermine legislative efforts to change the country’s Blasphemy law, and the protection of the country’s so-called Islamic identity are widely visible everywhere,” Jamal says.

The other worry for Jamal is that if radical groups do secure a few seats in the National Assembly (NA), “future efforts to successfully pass legislation that undermines radical groups’ agendas (would) difficult.”