Rad­i­cal can­di­dates close in on par­lia­men­tary power

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitic­s - BY NAILA INAYAT

Pak­istani vot­ers are lin­ing up be­hind ter­ror­ist-sup­ported can­di­dates ahead of par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, un­der­scor­ing how far rad­i­cal forces have moved to­ward the cen­ter of power in the South Asian na­tion in re­cent years.

While pre­dic­tions are wide­spread over how many ex­trem­ist-friendly can­di­dates will win seats, sev­eral ul­tra-right re­li­gious groups have fielded con­tenders for the July 25 vote for the Na­tional Assem­bly, which will in turn elect Pak­istan’s next prime min­is­ter.

Roughly 200 can­di­dates are from par­ties that pre­vi­ously were con­sid­ered to be too far on the fringe of Pak­istani pol­i­tics to stand a chance of en­ter­ing the assem­bly.

The leader of the big­gest party, Tehreek-e-Lab­baik, is fire­brand cleric Khadim Hus­sain Rizvi, who has led an ag­gres­sive cam­paign gar­ner­ing the most at­ten­tion among far-right groups.

“If I’m given the atom bomb, I would wipe Hol­land off from the face of the earth be­fore they can hold a com­pe­ti­tion of car­i­ca­tures,” Mr. Rizvi re­cently told jour­nal­ists at the Karachi Press Club, re­fer­ring to a Dutch com­pe­ti­tion of car­toons de­pict­ing the Prophet Muham­mad.

The idea of bring­ing mil­i­tant can­di­dates into the main­stream was re­port­edly the brain­child of Pak­istan’s pow­er­ful army, which floated the plan last year.

Nawaz Sharif re­jected the no­tion as prime min­is­ter, but it gained steam af­ter Mr. Sharif was pushed from of­fice last July for a cor­rup­tion con­vic­tion.

Po­lice ar­rested Sharif on July 13, the same day an Islamic State sui­cide bomber killed 128 at a cam­paign rally in Pak­istan’s north. The at­tack shook the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape with bit­ing de­bates over how to deal with ex­trem­ists.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers have crit­i­cized the army’s sus­pected in­volve­ment in a plan to main­stream mil­i­tant can­di­dates. They say mil­i­tary lead­ers were seek­ing to em­power mil­i­tants who might sup­port the mil­i­tary’s bel­liger­ent poli­cies to­ward In­dia and op­er­a­tions on Pak­istan’s bor­der with Afghanista­n.

“We are not dis­arm­ing the rad­i­cals. We are not teach­ing them how to be­come good cit­i­zens and re­spect the true words of Is­lam,” said Ahmed Rashid, a La­hore-based au­thor of books on ex­trem­ism in South Asia. “We are tak­ing them lock, stock and bar­rel and in­sert­ing them with all their vices into the main po­lit­i­cal stream. This is no way to ed­u­cate the peo­ple or to take the na­tion for­ward.”

Mr. Rizvi, mean­while, shot to po­lit­i­cal fame as an out­spo­ken cleric last year when he staged block­ades that brought Pak­istan’s cap­i­tal to a halt with protests de­mand­ing that law­mak­ers re­verse what he con­sid­ered to be a blas­phe­mous change they had made to the na­tion’s par­lia­men­tary oath.

The demon­stra­tions re­sulted in the res­ig­na­tion of a key gov­ern­ment min­is­ter. The de­vel­op­ment bol­stered Mr. Rizvi’s le­git­i­macy among re­li­gious vot­ers.

An­a­lysts pre­dict the cleric’s Tehreeke-Lab­baik party is un­likely to win enough par­lia­men­tary seats to join the next gov­ern­ment, but Mr. Rizvi is widely seen to hold sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence.

“Rizvi’s Lab­baik won’t make any ma­jor dents in terms of get­ting seats, but it will be­come a pres­sure group that can in the fu­ture hold sway,” said So­hail War­raich, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst based in La­hore.

An­other key player may be Al­lah-o-Ak­bar Tehreek, a lesser-known party headed by Hafiz Saeed, a man widely ac­cused of mas­ter­mind­ing the 2008 ter­ror­ist at­tacks that killed 166 peo­ple in Mum­bai, In­dia.

The United States has des­ig­nated Saeed as a global ter­ror­ist. He was re­leased from Pak­istani cus­tody last year, and Wash­ing­ton has of­fered a $10 mil­lion bounty for in­for­ma­tion that leads to his cap­ture.

On the elec­tion trail in the Iqbal Town district of La­hore, Saeed ridiculed the U.S. and In­dian govern­ments for op­pos­ing his en­try into Pak­istani pol­i­tics. “The world pow­ers like In­dia and U.S. cre­ated ob­sta­cles for us, but to­day we have won the first round against them,” he said. “We are now on the bal­lot.”

In a re­lated twist, Pak­istani of­fi­cials re­cently un­froze the as­sets of Is­lamist cleric Muham­mad Ahmed Lud­hi­anvi, a critic of Shi­ite Is­lam, and re­moved his name from the na­tion’s ter­ror­ist watch­list. Au­thor­i­ties also lifted a ban on Mr. Lud­hi­anvi’s sec­tar­ian out­fit, Ahle Sun­nat Wal Ja­maat, to al­low the group to run can­di­dates in next week’s elec­tions.

The main­stream­ing of the re­li­gious par­ties has co­in­cided with re­ports that the Paris-based Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force, a U.S.-aligned or­ga­ni­za­tion fo­cused on com­bat­ing in­ter­na­tional money-laun­der­ing, has raised alarm about Pak­istan.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion an­nounced last month that Pak­istan would be kept on its “gray list.” Many ob­servers saw the de­vel­op­ment as an in­di­ca­tion that Is­lam­abad has not been dili­gent enough in crack­ing down on ter­ror­ist fi­nan­cial net­works.

To avoid place­ment on the Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force black­list, Pak­istani of­fi­cials have agreed to a plan to choke off fi­nanc­ing for the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Haqqani net­work and oth­ers.

Pak­istani vot­ers who sup­port ex­trem­ist re­li­gious groups say such de­vel­op­ments are signs that for­eign in­sti­tu­tions are bi­ased against Is­lam and Pak­istan.

“Ev­ery ci­ti­zen of Pak­istan has a right to con­test the elec­tion,” said Mo­ham­mad Ma­sood, one prospec­tive voter in La­hore. “Why should re­li­gious par­ties be de­nied that fun­da­men­tal right? Hafiz Saeed has done great ser­vice for his peo­ple, and that is why he’s been de­clared a ter­ror­ist by our en­e­mies.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Sup­port­ers of for­mer Pak­istani Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif ral­lied in La­hore be­fore Sharif was whisked away to face a 10-year prison sen­tence on cor­rup­tion charges.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Khadim Hus­sain Rizvi, head of Pak­istan’s rad­i­cal re­li­gious party Tehreek-e-Lab­baik, has gar­nered the most at­ten­tion among far-right groups. He has threat­ened to bomb the Dutch peo­ple.

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