Pakistan’s by-election for the National Assembly seat in Lahore sprung up some surprises, with two candidates backed by the hardline religious parties finishing third and fourth, and winning together about 11 per cent of the vote cast. Although Begum Kulsoom of ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) defeated Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s Dr Yasmin Rashid, the margin of victory came to around 14,000 in the by-poll from over 39,000 votes back in the 2013 elections.
The NA-120 parliamentary seat fell vacant after the apex court on July 28 disqualified prime minister Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case on grounds that he was dishonest. Many people were predicting a better tally for the PML-N, while others were writing off the role of religio-sectarian outfits in the election. However, the two candidates backed by religious parties that appeared to most chip away at the PML-N vote share, together won about 11 per cent, Dawn reported.
Neither party — one of which is linked to the Mumbai attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed — existed in 2013. One of the surprises was the third-place finish of Azhar Husain Rizvi, an independent candidate backed by ‘Labbaik Ya Rasulallah’ – a coalition of Islamist groups. He won 6 per cent of the vote campaigning on a platform of support for strict blasphemy laws. His campaign posters praised executed killer Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard who assassinated former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer for suggesting the laws might be reviewed.
Yaqoob Sheikh, who was himself designated a terrorist by the United States in 2012, captured nearly 5 per cent votes. Sheikh was was an independent candidate, though he was backed by the newly formed Milli Muslim League (MML) — a political version of Saeed’s Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD). The JuD has been declared as a foreign terrorist group by the US and its chief Saeed carries a USD 10 million American bounty on his head for his role in terror activities.
Despite their relatively strong gains, neither the MML nor the LYR is seen as having much chance of winning many seats in 2018. The by-poll also saw revival of the use of places of worship for politicking as the candidates backed by the MML and LYR made mosques as their “base camps” for electioneering.
The last time mosques prominently used for political movements was during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government when the nine-party Pakistan National Alliance had launched a Nizam-i-Mustafa movement against the then PPP government after allegations of rigging in the 1977 general elections. Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi-led LYR, which belongs to the Barelvi school of thought, fully took advantage of 100-plus mosques in the area for Azhar’s campaign.
The Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan of Qari Zawwar Bahadur and the Sunni Ittehad Council extended their support to Azhar. The MML made Masjid Al-Qadisia, the JuD headquarters, as its main election office. It also made use of other mosques of the Ahle Hadith school of thought, around 40 in number, in the area for seeking votes for Sheikh, who bagged 5,822 votes.
The MML’s campaign seemed well financed and organised as in the words of an observer it was matching banner-to-banner, polling camp-to-polling camp with the PML-N and the PTI. In comparison, the Labbaik seemed devoid of resources.
The PML-N had gradually snatched the right-wing vote from Jamaat-i-Islami over the last two decades or so as the JI nominee could not claim more than a couple of thousands in the last four contests. But the grabbing of 13,000 ballots jointly by the LYR and MML shows that the right-wing vote has found new representatives.