February 20, 2008 in Nation/World

Islamist parties lose big during Pakistan vote

Saeed Shah McClatchy
 

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 religious parties won five seats in the national parliament this time. In North West Frontier province, where the country’s Islamic insurgency is strongest, religious parties won 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.

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.

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.


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