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Islamist phalanx routed all across Pakistan

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By SANKARSHAN THAKUR in Islamabad
  • Published 19.02.08
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Islamabad, Feb. 19: Much more astounding than the defeat of the king’s party in these elections has been the verdict on Pakistan’s Islamist phalanx spearheaded by the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

They’ve been routed everywhere they ventured, staggeringly in the jihad-ridden North West Frontier Province (NWFP). They’ve lost the key province to the liberal-secular Awami National Party (ANP)-PPP alliance. They’ve been reduced to ciphers in the National Assembly — they held 59 seats, they’ve managed just three.

“This is one of the most significant messages emerging from this election, especially because we are caught in a situation where the line between politics and jihad was fast getting blurred,” said respected commentator Rashid Rehman.

“This means a definite swing away of the public mood from the religious Right back to old-fashioned politics of the mainstream. They have not only lost in the NWFP, they have lost all across the country.”

Experts are attributing the rejection of the MMA, also allies of President Pervez Musharraf, to three factors:

• The split which saw Qazi Hussein Ahmed take his Jamaat-i-Islami into the poll boycott camp

• Their inability or reluctance to contain jihadi proliferation in the NWFP which they ruled and, of course,

• Their association with a President whose popularity has been on a downhill.

Elements of the al Qaida and the Pakistani Taliban, led by Baitullah Mehsud, prospered under the MMA in NWFP and were able, during the last few months, to strike at will even in the Punjab heartland. There are those who believe, in fact, that the MMA used them to hit political opponents during the election campaign as well.

Most suicide attacks in the run-up to the elections in the NWFP targeted the ANP and the PPP. “It was not lost on anybody what the MMA was upto,” a retired army general said. “I would say there was extreme fatigue against the unabated violence, people wanted an end to it. The MMA’s ouster may not end violence, but people have tried a change.”

Terror is a major concern with people across the country but opposition to terror does not quite add up to supporting the US-led war on terror. “There is no getting away from the fact that Pakistan is a deeply religious country and the US is a red rag,” said Abid Hussein, an Islamabad-based scholar. “Most people believe terror is a consequence of American policies, not the other way around.”

It might be erroneous to interpret the defeat of the MMA as a setback to jihadi forces, though; the dynamics of jihad are quite independent of ups and downs of electoral politics. “There might be a honeymoon period, a brief peace,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of Peshawar’s most respected journalists told The Telegraph. “They will see the new government’s attitude towards them, they will size them up, but their war really is not against governments, their war is against the US, that is why a change in government may not matter much.”

Observers believe that anti-US sentiment in Pakistan is not limited to the religious Right-wing and so to see the MMA’s defeat as a radical change in street perceptions would be to over-interpret. “Even mainstream parties are not able to take overtly pro-US positions,” said the retired general.

“That was part of the reason by Musharraf lost credibility. The US, particularly the Bush regime, is seen as an enemy at large and no political party can fight that perception. So they have to play things very delicately.

The ANP in NWFP, for instance, does not collude with the jihadis but it is not for their military extermination, it is for talks, for bringing them round.” So if American policy-makers — there are always too many in Islamabad — are divining in the change of political guard in NWFP a bolder offensive against jihad, they only might be deluding themselves.