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Terror shadow on Lahore bypoll: Hafiz Saeed’s man in fray for NA-120 seat

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The byelection will be held on 17 September to elect disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s replacement in Pakistan’s National Assembly.

For anyone interested in the politics of the subcontinent, the bypoll for Lahore’s NA-120 National Assembly seat on 17 September is turning out to be must-watch.

The election will decide who will replace Nawaz Sharif in the lower house of Pakistan’s parliament – after the Supreme Court disqualified him in connection with the Panama Papers case.

But it has become even more important because it marks the political debut of UN-designated global terrorist Hafiz Saeed’s political party, the Milli Muslim League (MML) – albeit an unofficial one.

Saeed – the alleged mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks and scores of others across India and Afghanistan – launched the party in August. It was seen as an obvious bid by his Islamist jihadi group, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, to gain political legitimacy and exercise more power in Pakistan’s warped power system.

However, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) insists the MML is not a recognised political party, and no election symbol has been allotted to it. And yet, the MML’s candidate, Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh, has been allowed to fight as an independent.

At a time when Pakistan is being hauled up for its support to terror by the international community, including traditional allies like China, the fact that Hafiz Saeed’s chosen candidate remains in fray is surprising. And while the ECP has fallen short of disqualifying Yaqoob, sources in Pakistan’s home ministry are reported to have objected to his candidature.

MML defying election commision

The ECP order, dated 9 September, came after the MML had thrown its entire might behind Yaqoob in an incessant campaign.

The ECP insisted that “no organisation by the name of Milli Muslim League is registered with it and neither does it have any legal status.”

It added: “The commission has advised the returning officer to take legal action and initiate model code of conduct proceedings against the independent candidate, and also stop him from using the name of MML.”

However, despite the order, the MML continues to hail Yaqoob as its candidate. The outfit’s Twitter handle, which has just over 2,000 followers, has Yaqoob in its display picture, and multiple campaign posters address him as the “central leader” and the party’s chosen candidate.

What is particularly relevant is that banning a radical organisation without disqualifying its candidates has not served the interests of the country in the past. Earlier, the ECP had allowed Masroor Nawaz Jhangvi to contest an election as an independent candidate despite his association with the banned sectarian outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba, only to have him win the election.

Radical ideology

So what does the MML have to offer politically? Revolutionary and radical, the MML’s politics centres around predictable fears and conspiracy theories. The League is out there to “save the country” from corruption, liberalism and secularism, and establish the Pakistan envisioned by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

On Kashmir, the outfit’s stand is predictably uncompromising. “Kashmiris are fighting for the completion of Pakistan,” the MML said in a press conference last month. “We salute their sacrifices and their right to self-determination.”

Earlier this month, Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s second-in-command Abdul Rehman Makki had pledged to intensify ‘jihad’ against India in Kashmir.

Experts say the MML is the latest of Hafiz Saeed’s many bids to “legitimise terror”, and escape the national and international bans against him.

As Lt Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd.) explains here, with the uncertain political environment in the country, wherein a prime minister from the main party of the Punjab heartland can be shown the door by the Supreme Court, it would be foolhardy for Saeed to think his future in the country cannot be challenge.

Yaqoob’s chances

Does Yaqoob have a realistic chance at victory in the upcoming polls? The Pakistani media unequivocally seems to think not. The contest is essentially between Sharif’s wife Begum Kulsoom Nawaz of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and Dr Yasmin Rashid of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.

Yet, Yaqoob’s participation in mainstream politics should ring alarm bells in Pakistan, where it is becoming increasingly routine for proscribed outfits to launch political fronts.

While JuD has been internationally termed an “extremist” organisation by India, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Russia, and Hafiz Saeed a “terrorist” by the US and India, it has not been designated a terrorist organisation in Pakistan, even though it has been on its terror watch-list for many years.

ECP statement translated from Urdu by Talha Ashraf

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