Sectarian violence is raging in Pakistan, and some commentators are now describing the relentless assaults on Shia Muslims as genocide. Predictably, many observers fear that this unrest-coupled with a dangerous overall security situation-could delay Pakistan's May 11 national elections.
It's an understandable, yet ultimately misplaced, concern. As was recently pointed out, Pakistan has held elections under much more trying conditions-including one in Swat in 2008, during the height of the Pakistani Taliban's insurgency there.
Few commentators, however, are talking about another possible impact of sectarian strife on the elections: Shias-roughly 20 percent of the Pakistani population-mobilizing en masse to vote the ruling political party out of power.
Their motivations would be obvious. Shias-like Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minorities in Pakistan-are incensed at the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for failing to protect them, and for taking no meaningful action against those who terrorize them. In the blunt words of Abdul Khaliq Hazara, a prominent Hazara Shia in Quetta who heads the Hazara Democratic Party, "the government doesn't have the will to go after them."
Under this scenario, who would the Shia vote for? Probably not the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)-Pakistan's chief opposition party and the current favorite to lead the next governing coalition. The PML-N's bastion is in Punjab Province, which is also the home base of some of Pakistan's most vicious sectarian extremist groups, including the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Yet instead of confronting the LeJ, the PML-N is seemingly courting it. Last year, the law minister of Punjab's provincial government (led by the PML-N) campaigned with the leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), LeJ's parent organization. And just days ago, the secretary general of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ)-like the LeJ, a splinter group of SSP- bragged: "We have thousands of voters in almost every constituency of the South and Central Punjab and the PML-N leadership is destined to knock at our doors when the elections come."
Rumors have abounded that, with the election in mind, the PML-N is negotiating a "seat-adjustment" agreement with ASWJ. (The Express Tribune, in an article later removed from its website, described the deal as follows: the PML-N will support the ASWJ in races for three National Assembly seats, while in return the ASWJ, "whose votes often play a vital role in helping candidates win," will withdraw its candidates from contesting about a dozen National Assembly seats in Punjab) Last month the PML-N denied the rumors-only to be contradicted just days later by SSP's leader. Regardless of who's telling the truth, the PML-N has done little to dispel the expectation that, if it leads the next government, it will do little to address the Shias' plight.
A more likely choice for the Shias might be voting for Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. The PTI, more so than the PML-N or PPP, has gone out of its way to condemn the country's sectarian bloodshed and its chief instigators. Pakistani analysts have contrasted Khan's strong and unequivocal denunciations with the "obfuscations and meaningless remarks" uttered by the Pakistani government. After an LeJ bombing killed nearly 90 people in a Quetta market last month, Khan declared at a press conference: "I tell you by name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi...there can be no bigger enemy of Islam than you." He also accused the LeJ of exhibiting "the worst kind of enmity towards Islam." Such strong language is rarely used by the PPP or PML-N. In January, Khan even endorsed Shia demands for targeted operations against religious militants.
Admittedly, the PTI has no plans to take aim at the root causes of sectarian violence. For example, reforming-much less repealing-Pakistan's blasphemy laws (which are often used as a pretext to persecute religious minorities) is a move no political party in Pakistan dares make; the late Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated for merely criticizing them. Nonetheless, compared to the two major parties, the PTI gives the impression of genuinely caring about, and wanting to help, Pakistan's besieged minorities (along with other vulnerable segments of the population; the party recently released a new manifesto to protect the disabled). Tellingly, after an attack on a Quetta snooker hall targeting Hazara Shias left more than 100 dead in January, Khan visited the victims' grieving families-a meeting that occurred before the arrival of Pakistani government officials. Shias in Lahore and other areas of Punjab-home to 148 of Pakistan's 272 national assembly seats-could cause significant damage to the PML-N's electoral prospects if they vote as a bloc for the PTI.
But there's little reason to believe Pakistan's Shias will actually turn out in droves to vote for the PTI. Many Shias are suspicious of Khan because of his support for talks with the Taliban and other gestures perceived as sympathetic to religious militants. Such suspicions intensify when PTI officials (including party vice chairman Ajaz Chaudhry) share the stage with hardline Islamist figures-including members of the ASWJ-during rallies of the Pakistan Defense Council, a collective of conservative religious parties. A recent video produced by the Shia rights group ShiaKilling.com captures the contempt that Pakistani Shias harbor toward the PTI (and toward the PML-N as well). One Shia cleric (who does not appear to enjoy a large following) has even peddled an elaborate conspiracy theory involving Saudi Arabia and the ISI colluding to install Khan as the leader of a new "Saudi-Wahhabi Islamic State" of Pakistan.
There's also little reason to believe Shias will band together and vote en masse for any other political party. Formal research on Pakistani Shia voting patterns is limited, but based on informal conversations and anecdotal evidence, it's safe to say that such patterns are far from monolithic. On May 11, some will vote along ethnic lines. Others will opt for the PPP; in a by-election last year in the Punjab city of Multan, the PPP candidate triumphed-and analysts noted that he earned Shia votes (in fact, according to research by Andrew Wilder, Shias in Punjab tended to vote for the PPP as far back as the 1990s -because of the perception that it was more liberal and tolerant of religious minorities than were other parties). Others still will vote for the MQM. This is a party that has controlled Karachi politics for decades-and has traditionally received many Shia votes (though given Karachi's violent political culture, many of them were probably cast under pressure). Some will simply choose a sympathetic patron. Finally, many Shias-due to fear, apathy, or sheer disgust-probably won't vote at all.
This isn't to say Shias aren't joining forces to pursue political goals. Last November, a top official with the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), a collaborative of Pakistani Shia religious scholars, announced that the organization would be establishing a Shia Solidarity Council "to promote harmony" among the country's Shias. The MWM, he added, "has been making all-out efforts to unite all Shia parties of Pakistan at one platform." (MWM party leaders, incidentally, have also said they seek to "counter [the] nefarious designs of the imperialist forces" against Pakistan, and the MWM has staged U.S. flag-burnings in front of the American embassy in Islamabad.)
Several weeks ago, the MWM registered as a political party with Pakistan's Election Commission, and has now decided to contest elections. Party officials have vowed to field candidates for 100 parliamentary seats (60 of them in the national assembly), mostly representing Shia-majority areas in Punjab and in Pakistan's other three provinces. However, owing to a variety of factors-such as the lack of electoral success of Pakistani religious parties, and the MWM's dearth of political resources-the party's big-picture prospects appear dim.
The takeaway? Pakistan's sectarian violence is unlikely to delay this year's election. And, owing to the strong likelihood of a PPP or PML-N victory on May 11, the votes cast by those in the crosshairs of that violence will fail to delay the inevitable-the arrival in power of another fragile coalition unable or unwilling to protect them.
Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michaelkugelman
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