Pakistan's Islamic Parties Struggle for Support

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 23, 2007

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- In 2002, Ibrar Hussein voted for an Islamic takeover.

Fed up both with Pakistan's military-led government and with the mainstream, secular opposition, Hussein decided that religious leaders should be given a chance to improve living conditions in this sprawling frontier city.

But five years after support from people like Hussein propelled the Islamic parties to power in the provincial government -- and to their strongest-ever showing nationally -- the 36-year-old shopkeeper is rethinking his choice.

"You can see the sanitation system here," Hussein said, pointing with disgust to a ditch in front of his shop where a stream of greenish-brown sludge trickled by. "People were asking for clean water, and they didn't get it. We were very hopeful. But the mullahs did nothing for us."

Hussein's disenchantment is just one reason why, with Pakistan on the eve of fresh parliamentary elections, the religious parties are struggling to appeal to voters.

On the surface, at least, they have many things going for them: Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, is deeply unpopular. So, too, are his backers in Washington. The leading opposition politicians have had their opportunities before, and failed. Overall, frustration in Pakistan is running high.

And yet the Islamic parties seem poorly positioned to benefit from that frustration. Beset by bitter internal divisions, they have failed to come up with a unified campaign strategy. Their candidates, meanwhile, have to answer for a dubious record in governing North-West Frontier Province, their traditional base of support. And out on the stump, they are finding that anti-American sentiments are not quite as raw as they once were.

"Last time, it was easy," sighed Abdul Jalil Jan, a 50-year-old cleric who is running to represent Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, in the National Assembly. "This time, it is very hard."

Jan, an affable man with a long, dyed-black beard and rose-tinted glasses, has been on a dawn-till-midnight campaign schedule for weeks now, pausing only to pray five times a day. He walks the manic markets and back-alley slums of Peshawar with his hand outstretched, asking for votes.

A few respond with enthusiasm, proclaiming, "I'm already with you." Others offer a more measured "Inshallah" -- if God wills it.

"Some people," Jan conceded recently as he hit the streets, "are angry."

The anger is showing up in polls: Just 4 percent of Pakistanis said in a recent survey that they intended to support the religious parties in the Jan. 8 elections.

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