Voters reverse Islamists' rise in Pakistani politics

Karachi, Pakistan - Voters in Pakistan have dealt a surprising blow to religious extremists, bucking the rise in recent years of radical Islam in politics here.

Countrywide elections for local governments, which were held on August 18 and 25 in over 100 districts, reversed the gains made by radical Islamists who came to power in two out of the country's four provinces in 2002. They had played a strong opposition role in the federal parliament and posed a formidable challenge to President Pervez Musharraf's vow to bring "enlightened moderation" to Pakistani society.

The absence of full elections at the federal level has enhanced the importance of Pakistan's local and city government as a political bellwether. Observers here point to a number of reasons for the poor showing for the religious parties, including internal divisions; changes to the ballot; as well as a cooling off of tensions caused by the government's reorientation following Sept. 11, 2001.

"It apparently seems that the establishment has laid their hands off the Islamists and radicals' influence has faded all over the country," says Jaffer Ahmed, chairman of the Pakistan Study Centre at the University of Karachi. "But we can't say that their downfall has started," he hastened to add.

President Musharraf was jubilant the day after the polls closed. "Local body elections have resulted in the victory of moderates and defeat of extremists everywhere in Pakistan," he said.

The unexpected defeat of the Islamists came in the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP), which neighbors Afghanistan. The province had been ruled since 2002 by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an umbrella group of six religious parties, including the vanguard radical party Jamaat-e-Islami.

The MMA had emerged as a powerful political force in the October 2002 national elections, riding popular anger at Pakistan's support for the US ouster of the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan. The alliance also used a book as its symbol on the ballot, telling voters that the book represented the Koran, and that a vote for the MMA was a vote for Islam.

Once in office, the religious alliance continued to defy Musharraf's war on terror at home and abroad. Police began waging a Talibanesque antivice drive that included bans on music and attacks on billboard advertisements depicting women.

However, heading into the August vote, differences cropped up in the MMA and the alliance subsequently broke down on the local government level. With some distance from Sept. 11 and without the benefit of the book as its ballot symbol, the religious parties lost their majority to the Awami National Party (ANP), a secular Pashtun party.

"I am more than 100 percent satisfied, says Asfandyar Wali, chief of the ANP, which emerged as the single largest party in the province according to informal results. "We are very much able to head governments in all major cities including Peshawar [the provincial capital]."

When the MMA splintered, intriguing and odd political alliances came to the fore to win over the city governments. Jamaat-e-Islami chose to join hands with ANP, though they have diametrically opposed ideological positions with the ANP, a party formed in 1986 by the merger of several left-leaning parties.

"These are the dynamics of the politics and these are only election alliances not an ideological merger," says Mr. Wali, who pledged to carry on a secular vision of government in the cities.

Waning influence of Islamists, who have given way to secular and moderate parties, makes many believe the wave of fundamentalism could be forestalled effectively in the frontier province and at the polls in the next national elections in 2007.

But the MMA could yet regroup, especially if outside engagement with Pakistan wanes, says Mr. Ahmed. "It would all depend on the US and Western countries' attitude towards Pakistan, whose role seems to be diminishing now for them," he says.