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Pakistan's Islamic Parties Struggle for Support
5 Years After Sweep In NW Province, Backers Frustrated

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.

Jan was not even supposed to be running for election this year. His party, Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami, or JUI, had ceded the seat to its coalition partner, Jamaat-e-Islami, or JI. But because of JI concerns that the vote will be rigged, the party's bespectacled and professorial leader, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, decided there was no point in contesting. Most JI candidates are sitting out the election.

Both parties preach the notion of turning Pakistan into a theocracy. But they have very different ideas about how to get there.

"JUI thinks now is the best time to get a share of power," said Ershad Mahmud, research coordinator at the Institute of Policy Studies, a JI-funded research institute. "But JI doesn't believe in sharing power. JI wants to change the system."

The schism between the two has opened up an opportunity for secular-minded parties that had been trounced by JI and JUI in the northwest in 2002 but are now looking to make a comeback.

Throughout its 60-year history, Pakistan has consistently favored secular parties, despite the nation's origins as a separate homeland for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. The high-water mark for the Islamic parties, 2002, yielded just 12 percent of the national vote.

But that year they were able to sweep the northwest and seize control of the provincial government.

At the time, they railed against the United States, alcohol, gambling, cable television and coeducation. Their record in government turned out to be more moderate than their slogans suggested.

But rival parties hope to make an issue of the growing Taliban threat in the northwest, which they say has been worsened by indifference -- or even quiet support -- from the religious parties. In particular, rivals cite the Swat Valley, a former tourist hub that has lately become the scene of intense battles between insurgents and Pakistan's army.

Latif Afridi, a cleanshaven lawyer who helps lead a Pashtun-nationalist party, said the religious parties "are directly responsible for the destruction of Swat." He also said they are now vulnerable because they abandoned their promises.

While they ran in 2002 on a vow of clean government and improved citizen services, leaders of religious parties have fallen prey to the same allegations of corruption and lackluster governance that shadow the nation's secular parties.

"They've got a record now, and it's not a great one," said a Western diplomat, who would speak only on condition of anonymity. "When you're out of office, you can call for all sorts of things and be a paragon of virtue. But when you're in office, it's a different story. The glitter has worn off a little bit."

Qibla Ayaz, dean of the Islamic studies program at the University of Peshawar, agreed. "Frankly speaking, this was not a government that people liked very much," said Ayaz, who has ties to JUI.

But he said there are other reasons, too, why the religious parties may suffer setbacks in the upcoming elections. In 2002, he said, the United States had only recently invaded Afghanistan. The memory was fresh, and anxiety about a similar strike against Pakistan was near its peak. The religious parties used that to their advantage.

"Now time has passed, and the intensity of the anger has lowered," he said.

And yet, there is a more ominous explanation for the religious parties' struggles.

It's also possible, Ayaz said, that some of those who believe in bringing Islamic law to Pakistan -- particularly the young -- are giving up on the democratic process and on the Islamic parties. They're going underground instead, choosing insurgency instead of politics.

In the slums of Peshawar, where veterans of the war in Afghanistan hobble on peg legs through trash-strewn streets, that theory has some credence.

"The Taliban system is the best system," said Sabiq Shah, a 42-year-old peanut salesman. "It will come to Pakistan. Either through election or revolution, it does not matter which."

Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali contributed to this report.

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