An imposing,black-bearded politician in a striking white turban takes the stage at a campaign rally in northwest Pakistan as a song about Islamic holy war blares over loudspeakers. Before a chanting crowd,he praises the Afghan Taliban and blasts Pakistans government for not protecting Osama bin Laden from US commandos.
Maulana Shujaul Mulk is one of hundreds of candidates from hardline Islamist parties running for office in this Saturdays national elections. Many analysts expect the Islamists to win more support than in the last vote five years ago,raising concerns about the impact they could have in a country already plagued by rising intolerance and a deadly Taliban insurgency.
The Islamists could also make life more difficult for their avowed enemy,the US,which needs Pakistans help to fight militants and negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan. The parties are seen as close to Pakistans powerful army,which has allegedly used them to put pressure on the US at troubled times in the relationship.
Hardline Islamist parties often attract tens of thousands of people to their public rallies,but have had difficulty converting this into seats in national and provincial assemblies.