Islamic fundamentalists lose big in Pakistan vote

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 19, 2008 

LAHORE, Pakistan — Pakistani voters handed Islamist political parties a massive defeat Monday, virtually eliminating them from regional parliaments in an election that's likely to have a wide-ranging impact on efforts to rein in growing Taliban and al Qaida influence in Pakistan's North West Frontier province.

In 2002, fundamentalist religious parties, some openly sympathetic to the Taliban, won 12 percent of the national vote. That was enough to form a regional government in the North West Frontier province, which borders Afghanistan, become part of the ruling coalition in Baluchistan, another conservative province, and hold 57 seats in the 342-member national parliament.

But unofficial results of Monday's vote indicate that religious parties won only five seats in the national parliament this time. In North West Frontier province, where the country's Islamic insurgency is strongest, religious parties won just nine seats in the 96-seat provincial assembly. In 2002, they won 67.

"This is a sea-change," said Khalid Aziz, a political analyst based in the province's capital, Peshawar. "The people have rejected the much-hyped Islamic nation concept."

The North West Frontier province's voters turned instead to two secular parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party, which emerged as the biggest force across the country, and the Awami National Party, which gained the most provincial seats, bringing it back from decades of marginalization.

Critics of the religious parties had charged that they pandered to Islamic extremists, or at least turned a blind eye to their activities. As a result, a group of heavily armed militants seized control of the province's Swat valley late last year.

"They were not committed to fighting the terrorists," Aziz said. "They were the flip side of the same coin."

Mahmood Shah, a former senior government official in the North West Frontier province who's now a security consultant, said that voters hoped the secular parties would be more willing to go after militant groups that travel routinely between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"For the last five years, the provincial government has been trying to defuse federal government activity" against militants, Shah said. The secular parties "have a clear stance on terrorism," he said.

Shah said he expected that local officials also would become more willing to cooperate with Afghanistan in suppressing Islamic militants, noting that the Awami National Party has good relations with U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai and U.S. officials think that the Taliban and al Qaida use Pakistan's tribal belt as a base.

The religious parties also faced an electorate that was unhappy with their tough positions on moral issues. The religious coalition had banned billboards showing women and prohibited theatrical performances.

In the Punjabi city of Jhang in Pakistan's heartland, a religious cleric who's accused of heading a banned violent Islamic group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, also lost. Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi got more than 35,000 votes but was defeated by a margin of about 5,000 by Sheik Waqas, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the political party that backs the election's biggest loser, U.S.-backed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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