Pakistani military welcomes extremists into parliament
Hafiz Saeed's Milli Muslim League made its political debut with the National Assembly by-election in Lahore last month. Source: Milli Muslim League/Twitter
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Lahore’s NA-120 bypoll saw posters of global terrorist Hafiz Saeed and hanged assassin Mumtaz Qadri on public display, causing concern in Pakistan.

The by-election for Pakistan’s National Assembly constituency NA-120 in Lahore is over, and Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif has been elected to replace her disqualified husband, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

However, the election has left sections across Pakistan alarmed, for it saw posters of global terrorist Hafiz Saeed and executed assassin Mumtaz Qadri on public display in support of two different candidates from ultra-right religious parties. And what’s even more alarming is that the candidates in question garnered over 11 percent of the total vote.

Is the Lahore bypoll an indicator that radical outfits across Pakistan will be accepted into the political mainstream?

Extremists’ performance

Senior Pakistani journalist and writer Owais Tohaid is one of those greatly concerned by these developments. He said he was disturbed by the fact that the election campaign saw “posters of Hafiz Saeed and Mumtaz Qadri displayed on lampposts and walls of the constituency alongside posters of Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan”.

Hafiz Saeed’s Milli Muslim League (MML), which was to make its electoral debut in the Lahore bypoll, was not recognised by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

However, it allowed the party’s candidate Muhammad Yaqoob Sheikh to contest as an independent, and the MML continued to hail Yaqoob as its candidate, printing posters and flyers bearing his image alongside that of 26/11 mastermind Saeed. Yaqoob garnered 5,822 votes of the total of approximately 1.2 lakh votes polled.

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Qadri’s posters were used by another new party, Tehreek Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (LYR). This is a grouping of the Barelvi sect of Islam that Qadri, who assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, belonged to. The candidate backed by LYR, Sheikh Azhar Hussain Rizvi, received 7,130 votes.

No need for paranoia, but concern is fair

Given that the general elections are only months away, concerns over the political discourse changing to give space to religious radicalism are gaining strength in sections of Pakistan.

MML-backed candidate Yaqoob has already announced that the party will “field candidates in every constituency of the country in next year’s election”.

The ability of outfits to openly campaign with posters of designated extremists like Saeed and Qadri is “dangerous”, political analyst Amir Mateen said. “But the positive sign is that there is more criticism than acceptance in the country,” he added. “Even the government is on the defensive, with a minister saying that we should set our house in order.”

Mateen argued that it is unlikely to translate into a national trend, and those fears may be “overstated”. “It is one thing to contest an election in one constituency with an independent candidate, and altogether another thing to fight a general election when your party is not registered,” he explained.

Moreover, MML was fighting in a constituency where its headquarters are located, giving its candidate an advantage, Mateen added.

Political scientist and military analyst Hassan Askar Rizvi agreed that the “paranoia” was “overstated”. Religious militants were in no position to win elections, he insisted. “If religious parties want to be mainstreamed, they will have to change their political thought,” he said.

But even though the number of votes garnered by these extremist candidates were relatively small, they may not give an accurate understanding of the support enjoyed by radical religious parties, Tohaid said. “Tomorrow if some of them (radical parties) end up in parliament, and the state wants to rein them in, it will be called undemocratic,” he said.

“There is a general opinion in Pakistan that the legislature needs to revise electoral laws so as to screen such people from fighting for public office,” he said.

Yet, doing so is not a priority for the government, and that is a matter of concern.

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