Around 1,500 candidates are backed by religious and hardline parties for the July 25 general elections. Some of these groups are political fronts for groups banned for anti-state activites.
On July 25, a battery of candidates associated or backed by religious parties or banned groups will be vying for national and provincial assembly seats in Pakistan's general election.
Some 1,500 candidates backed by these parties are part of 11,855 candidates in the fray for 272 general seats and 577 seats in four provincial assemblies.
The multi-party religious alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) or United Council of Action was founded prior to the general election in 2002, which was conducted under military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
It comprised more than two dozen religious parties from various sects. Internal rifts broke the alliance in 2008.
Now revived, the alliance continues to be led by some powerful mainstream religious parties including the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl and Jamaat-e-Islami.
Most of the parties in the alliance are long-established and legally registered with the Election Commission, except for the Shia Tehreek-e-Islami, which is a new name for the banned Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan (TJP).
The MMA is fielding 595 candidates: 191 for the National Assembly, the rest for provincial assemblies.
Under the banner of banned
Led by Saifullah Khalid, Milli Muslim League (MML) was not registered by the election commission to contest elections as it was set up by a banned group. So it decided to field its candidates from the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek platform, which was already registered with the commission.
The MML's spiritual leader Hafiz Saeed is on a UN terrorism list in connection with the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. Saeed has denied involvement in the attacks.
Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek has been campaigning with Saeed's face on their banners and other election material. The group has fielded 260 candidates: 73 for the national assembly and the rest for provincial assemblies.
Led by Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, the Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) is banned for being the political wing of sectarian militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which has been allied with Al Qaeda and Daesh and responsible for the killing of hundreds of minority Shia Muslims.
The party denies links with LeJ.
Candidates are running under the name of ASWJ's shadow party Pakistan Rah-e-Haq party, or as independents.
However, Ludhianvi himself is running as a candidate after the inexplicable removal of his name from the federal terror watch-list and his bank accounts were unfrozen right before the election.
New to the game
Making its debut, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) is led by Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The party campaigns under the rallying cry "death to blasphemers" and hails those who murder the alleged blasphemers.
The party emerged out of a protest movement in 2016 against the state’s execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
In its first-ever election in September, 2017, the party surprised the Pakistani political elite with a strong showing by securing nearly eight percent of total votes cast in a by-election.
Can these parties eat into other vote banks?
The main race in Wednesday’s vote is between the party of now-jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which is seeking a second consecutive term despite its leader’s downfall on corruption charges, and the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, perceived as the favourite of the powerful military.
The MMA took the political elite by surprise when it made progress in the 2001 and 2002 elections in the national and provincial assemblies held under Musharraf. Joining forces again allows it to spread further. The renewed alliance might eat into the political elites' share but it is also at risk of losing steam to the extreme right.
Many see the expanding presence of more hardline parties as an effort to bring right-wing groups into the mainstream.
“The ostensible attempt to mainstream the religious right-wing is not making these parties take relatively moderate positions,” Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch told Reuters. “But rather, it’s radicalising the mainstream.”
However, many Pakistani journalists and experts believe groups like the TLP are being propped up to erode the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's voter bases, especially in the kingmaker province of Punjab which traditionally votes for the Sharifs.