RAWALPINDI, Pakistan — As Pakistan confronts an uncertain future after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's slaying, one thing is clear: Islamic parties sympathetic to al Qaida and the Taliban have lost a great deal of support since they won their greatest political victory in the country's history five years ago.
"Giving your vote to the religious parties is just wasting your vote," snorted tailor Abdul Sattar Mughal, 37, as he sat at an old sewing machine in a tiny back-street shop close to where Bhutto died. "They don't deliver anything; just slogans, nothing more."
The parties have been hurt by internal splits, leadership rivalries and widespread disdain for the hard-line Islamic rule they advocate. An outpouring of sympathy for Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party unleashed by her death Dec. 27 appears to have drained more support.
All this means that the winners of polls Feb. 18 — if large-scale vote-rigging doesn't occur — will be less beholden to the Islamic parties and may be better able to rally popular support against Pakistan's militant Islamic insurgency, with which some of the religious parties allegedly collaborate, analysts said.
"This gives hope," said Talat Masood, a political analyst who's a retired army general. "It gives the mainstream political parties the ability to function in a normal democratic way."
However, analysts and politicians said the Islamic parties would recover quickly if the Bush administration sent U.S. forces to strike al Qaida and Taliban refugees in Pakistan's tribal areas.
"There is overwhelming opposition to outside forces coming in to fight either the Taliban or al Qaida," said a public opinion survey released Monday by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.
The survey reaffirmed the depths of anti-American sentiment in the world's second most populous Muslim country and the conservative majority's desire that Islam play a "stronger role" in how the country is governed.
Yet it also found that a majority of Pakistanis oppose the severe brand of Islamic rule espoused by the religious parties and support a restoration of democracy after eight years of military rule under President Pervez Musharraf.
"People want religion, but not the kind practiced by the Taliban," said Mohammad Hanif Abbassi, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N's candidate in one of two national assembly districts that represent the military-headquarters city of Rawalpindi.
Secular parties have been far stronger than the Islamic parties have been for most of Pakistan's 60 years of independence. Then came the U.S.-led 2001 intervention in Afghanistan, which ousted the Taliban and drove Osama bin Laden and his followers into Pakistan.
Six Islamic parties formed the United Action Front, or MMA, widely thought to have been engineered by Pakistan's powerful intelligence service and former Taliban patron, Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, to contest 2002 elections.
The MMA rode the wave of anger against the United States with pledges to create a theocracy and denunciations of television, co-education and alcohol to achieve unprecedented political gains.
It formed governments in the North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces, and won 60 seats in the 342-seat national assembly, making the Islamists the largest opposition bloc.
But it began hemorrhaging from a series of self-inflicted wounds.
In 2003, the coalition voted for constitutional amendments that gave sweeping powers to Musharraf, validating his 1999 military coup and extending his term as president. In exchange, Musharraf agreed to resign as army chief, a pledge he broke, turning the MMA into one of his fiercest critics.
Yet the Islamists have been unable to harness public loathing for Musharraf, which has soared since Bhutto's slaying in a gun-and-suicide-bomb attack that the government has blamed on Islamic extremists allied with al Qaida and the Taliban.
The provincial governments have failed to make good on promises to end corruption and improve social services. MMA parties themselves are accused of graft, which they deny.
Moreover, some Pakistanis have come to associate the religious parties with the explosion in suicide bombings and other violence that's shaken Pakistan since Musharraf ordered troops to assault an extremist-held mosque in Islamabad last July.
The MMA split from the government last year when its largest component, the Jamaat Islami, the country's oldest Islamic party, declared that it would boycott the elections.
Denunciations of the Bush administration's war on terrorism, the war in Iraq, the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and U.S. support for Israel no longer carry the weight they did because most politicians are critical of U.S. foreign policy.
"That's probably not an issue now," said Ijaz Shafi Gailani, a political science professor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.
The Islamic parties still hail bin Laden and the Taliban as heroes. They say that the insurgents are ordinary people defending themselves from U.S.-supported government repression. And they claim that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were a Jewish-led conspiracy to justify what they call the Bush administration's war on Islam.
"I am very happy with Bush and Musharraf. They have caused Muslims to fight for themselves," said Mohammad Abbassi, a soft-spoken, keen-eyed Islamist candidate in Rawalpindi who exports Islamic literature to the United States.
Abbassi's university friend, Zubair Kayani, who works for a British aid group that helps AIDS and HIV patients and is also an MMA candidate, said that the alliance remained strong and would retain power in North West Frontier and Baluchistan provinces.
But, he said, the MMA is suffering from a lack of "very good and strong leadership" and is unlikely to capture the seats that the Jamaat Islami is relinquishing.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008