- Former PM Abbasi plays down emergence of far-right groups, says party is galvanised under Sharifs
- Analyst says if party loses in Punjab, it will be primarily because of religious vote
- TLP, MML hopeful to cash in on religious sentiments
LAHORE: Already suffering from Nawaz Sharif’s conviction and desertion by scores of crucial ‘electables’, PML-N’s chances are further diminished by the likely loss of its traditional right-of-centre religious vote bank, especially in its stronghold Punjab.
“If PML-N loses in Punjab it will be primarily because of the religious vote,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, prominent analyst and professor of political science at LUMS.
“They have been preoccupied with Imran Khan and taken the conservative constituency for granted for a long time.”
A number of religious parties have emerged on the political scene since the last general election. Prominent among them are Milli Muslim League (MML) and the firebrand Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The old religious parties’ alliance Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) has also been revived.
MML is an affiliate of Hafiz Saeed’s Jamatud Dawa and though ECP did not register the party because of alleged ties with banned outfits, it will contest the 2018 general election on the platform of Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek.
TLP came into being in reaction to the hanging of Mumtaz Qadri, the man who killed former Punjab governor Salman Taseer for his comments regarding the controversial blasphemy law.
Yet despite the apparent splitting of its traditional religious vote, the PML-N leadership appears unfazed.
“I doubt it will have much impact,” said former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. “Besides, PML-N had been drifting away from religious parties for a while because they tend to splinter off into alliances near elections.”
Earlier senior PML-N leader and former interior minister Ahsan Iqbal told a local daily that these religious parties were created to break the party’s religious vote bank. But it would not hurt their chances.
“Attempts to dilute our religious vote go back to the formation of MMA,” he said. And despite more attempts later the party remains unaffected. “Our party is united and Nawaz Sharif’s return will further galvanise it, even from jail.”
Prominent religious parties, on the other hand, blame PML-N’s policies for breaking away, though each had its own set of reasons.
“It is true that we largely constituted the traditional PML-N vote bank,” said Tabish Qayyum, spokesperson for MML. “But fissures started appearing after the 2013 election.”
MML blames PML-N’s pro-India stance, particularly its “weak position on India and Modi” for finally parting ways.
“If that was not enough, they began attacking the very foundations of Pakistan by adopting a somewhat liberal outlook,” he added.
MML believes that since Pakistan was founded in the name of Islam, a greater political effort was required to return the country to its original identity.
TLP has very different grievances. It burst onto the scene after the government carried out Mumtaz Qadri’s death sentence in 2016.
“We have come into politics over the issue of Khatm-e-Nabuwat,” said Ijaz Ashrafi, TLP spokesman. “Governments have always fooled people in the name of development, etc, but we will ask for their votes on the basis of faith.”
In three by-elections in Lahore, Chakwal and Lodhran, TLP finished third after PML-N and PTI each time. MML was close behind at fourth, except Chakwal, where it did not contest. Outside Punjab, TLP also finished third in a by-election in Peshawar.
The consistent rhetoric of these religious parties has also had a visible social effect. Preachers of the Barelvi as well as Deobandi persuasion across south Punjab have been spewing venom on the party throughout this electoral cycle.
“They are calling PML-N leaders hypocrites and voting for them a sin,” said Dr Rais of LUMS.
With Nawaz out of the equation, loyalists jumping ship, and the religious vote bank not just alienated but hostile, PML-N faces its toughest fight yet especially in Punjab.
Shahab Jafry contributed to this report