If religious parties were not elected into power, is the Pakistani voter thus “moderate”?

Published: August 11, 2018

The results have apparently shown that, by and large, Pakistan does not vote Islamist.

The 2018 Elections are over, giving a healthy but controversial victory to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). These elections were, according to many independent correspondents, one of the “dirtiest” in living memory, mainly due to the tactics employed by mainstream parties and the extreme political polarisation in the electorate.

Besides other things, one crucial aspect that truly distinguished these elections from previous ones was the intense whipping up of religious sensitivities – like bringing up the Finality of Prophethood (pbuh) – by several parties. Although this issue had been raised earlier as well, it took centre stage during the elections.

Due to the nature of these religion-infused campaigns, people were expecting religious parties to gain some ground, as the battle was being fought around their typical slogans and they were better equipped to capitalise on it. Some were even expecting them to win more seats this time.

However, the results have apparently shown that, by and large, Pakistan does not vote Islamist, as religious parties have collectively not been able to even cross the threshold of 10% of the total seats. Despite its revival, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) could only win 12 seats, whereas the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) could not even win a single seat in the National Assembly. Despite a highly charged campaign, it could only win two seats in the Sindh Assembly.

This result has apparently allayed the fears of moderates and reassured the world that in Pakistan, religious extremism is only at the fringe.

However, would it be true to infer that since Pakistan does not vote for religious parties, its voter is thus more “moderate”? I have often seen overzealous Pakistanis taunting Indians on social media over how their country is more “extreme” as it voted for a “religious” party like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whereas Pakistanis never vote in overwhelming numbers for similar kinds of extremist parties. By this logic, for them, Pakistan is more religiously “tolerant’ than India.

I wish this was true. The problem is that these aggregate numbers hide a far more complex story. Yes, religious parties do not get seats, but that does not mean the Pakistani electorate does not give weight to religious sloganeering and is immune to the weaponisation of sensitive religious matters.

If anything, this election actually saw mainstream parties like the PTI and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) actively whipping up religion for electoral gains. If religion was not a factor, then these parties would not have spent so much effort in pandering to it. Both Imran and Shehbaz Sharif courted influential pirs, with the former going to the Khatam-e-Nabuwat conference and alleging that Nawaz Sharif had deliberately changed the oath-taking to appease some western powers!

There is a reason as to why both mainstream parties played so hard on this wicket. In Pakistan, an ordinary voter may not be voting for religious parties, but religion nevertheless is a critical factor in his or her decision-making calculus. In other words, while religion may not be the only factor, it is definitely a very critical factor.

This is why mainstream conservative parties like the PML-N and PTI constantly use religious sloganeering. In fact, one reason as to why religious parties don’t get that many votes is that religion is not their exclusive domain, as all parties are using it. In other words, the difference between mainstream parties and religious parties has blurred to some extent, leaving the latter not much to sell.

Secondly, another fact which many are overlooking is that while religious parties did not get too many seats, they nevertheless did take a good number of votes in certain pockets of the country. It should be remembered that Pakistan follows the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, in which the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins. This system has often worked to the disadvantage of religious parties, whose vote is substantial but thinly spread across the country.

For example, despite being a new party, TLP still got more than 2.2 million votes in this election. However, since this vote was spread all across the country, it could not translate into many seats. If Pakistan was following the proportional representation system, then TLP would have ended with more than 10 seats in the National Assembly.

TLP’s performance in some urban areas of Punjab and in Karachi is an indicator that their message resonates with millions. This is a cause for worry, as their entire campaign was based on a single issue upon which they incited hate and violence against other parties, particularly the PML-N. In Punjab, TLP has dented the PML-N’s vote bank considerably, resulting in PTI winning some closely fought seats. Moreover, the presence of TLP forced both PTI and PML-N to also adopt a more hard-line stance.

This election is a grim reminder that in Pakistan, religious parties always end up affecting the political discourse more than their actual electoral strength. Further, the way this election was fought, I fear this will become a permanent template for the future as well. Yes, the religious groups may not have won many seats, but there is nothing to take comfort from within these results.


Raza Habib Raja

The author is a recent Cornell graduate and currently pursuing his PhD in political science at Maxwell School, Syracuse University. He has also worked for a leading development finance institution in Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist whose works have been published at Huffington Post, Dawn (Pakistan), Express Tribune (Pakistan) and Pak Tea House. He tweets @razaraja (twitter.com/razaraja?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Syed

    The equation is Pakistani thinks the self proclaimed clerics r corrupt..Recommend

  • Parvez

    Your opening paragraph does you a disservice.
    On the issue of religion and religious parties the genesis goes back to 1947 when religion was USED as a vehicle to obtain an independent state. Once this was achieved it had no further political use but the religious right saw an opportunity and a way to ‘ shine their own shops ‘ and to this day their efforts persist. The people by and large though religious are not inclined to support them for they understand their shortcomings.Recommend

  • Striver

    Raza, YES, they are moderate. Pakistanis by nature are moderate people. You should know that. Let’s not write articles for the sake of filling in empty space.
    If TLP got more than 2.2m (it is in-fact far less) votes that’s just 1% of the population. Do not disrespect the other 99% who did not vote TLP. There are too many ifs and buts in your arguments.

    Therefore, the premise upon which you try to build your logic for your arguments is false and not supported by facts. In other words your arguments are false.

    I follow a lot of news-sites of other countries. I have learnt over the years that Pakistanis are overly critical of themselves, so much so that they represent a false image of the themselves to the outside world. This article is in a similar vein.

    When will we learn to respect ourselves?Recommend

  • Stupid Intelligent

    The voters don’t elect anyone in this state. These clerics have fallen out of favor with them for the time being, until they will be needed again to bring down a popular leader.Recommend

  • Mahnaz Qaiser

    So,relgious parties were not voted into power but ‘religion is a critical factor in decision making’ for Pakistanis?Recommend

  • Jawad Jamil

    Very good analysis!Recommend

  • rumi52

    No mention of the PPP and Sindhi Pirs then. Families like the Makhdooms. These guys may not seem to have the extremism of the TLP and the Jamiat’s but they have not exactly helped in uplifting the condition of their followers. They collect the votes in the name of religion but their followers still live in medieval feudal poverty. Include these votes and its more than 10% of Pakistanis who voted for religious parties.Recommend

  • Patwari

    You are so pro PML-N that you can’t even congratulate Imran in simple words, “controversial victory”, maybe in your stunted dreams. Imran Khan won. Live with it.
    The whipped up fervor was instigated by Gazi Capt. Safdar [retd]. with his rant and hate speech in the National Assembly. Him alone. And it spread like a fever. Safdar was the point man in all this brouhaha, controversy, witches brew/cauldron. Though there were no witches involved, just bearded warlocks.
    Sadly enough, this man is also the son in law of the thrice failed ex PM Nawaz, [the thwarted ameerul momineen]. Safdar was also forefront at the funeral of Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of Governor Salman Taseer. How can the antics of this man be justified.
    This Safdar is also the husband of Maryam, [in the womens’ section of Adiala jail]Recommend

  • Patwari

    I is jist as confused as you is. [as they say in Timbuctoo or is it Timbuktu?]Recommend

  • Ahmad

    I am an ardent supporter of an Islamic republic. But would never support these people. They don’t offer anything. Just emotional slogans. Show me how you will make this an Islamic welfare state and I’ll vote for you.

    This country will never vote for a non-religous party. Have some party say that they would allow interest, open alcohol and gambling and let’s how many votes they get. This will be the exact opposite of a religious party. This will be a secular party.

    I thank God for this. You should stop trying. Won’t be able to make this country a secular one. It shouldn’t be one anyway.Recommend

  • Matina Zia

    It is wrong to play fast and loose with history. The demand for Pakistan was not based on religion. The Lahore Resolution passed by the Muslim League in 1940 is explicit and unequivocal on the issue. The Muslim manifesto leading into the 1945 election, in which it it won every single Muslim seat from every corner of India was entirely based on this Resolution.and not on Islam per se.

    Jinnah made it very clear on numerous occasions that he regarded religion as a personal issue and that it must not be exploited for political purposes The leaders of every religious party be it Jamaat-e-Islami, Khaksaars, Ahrars or Ulama-e-Hind had opposed him and the demand for Pakistan tooth and nail. Muslims had completely rejected the latter then and have consistently done so in every election since then.Recommend

  • NJ

    Religious reform is far away in Pakistan. More pertinent issues are reforming of administrative structures, institutions, and absolute justice. Once this step is completed it will automatically change the perception of the masses and will not go blindly what Mullah or religious cleric incites to get popularity. It takes time things cannot be changed in next 5 years but if things started to go on the right direction for 5 years constantly then perhaps it will change in another 5 years.
    Having said this Pakistan may have been created on the basis of religion but it wasn’t that Islam was in danger in India rather it was Muslims of India whose economic and social status was in danger. Today, Indian Muslim population is 170 Million while Pakistan’s population is more than 200 million. Despite all the so called “economic boom” in India with the help of the West it did not create a stable economic environment where Hindus or Muslims will compete on merit. Majority of Hindu population will and has been taking its share while Muslims have been marginalized. Pakistan ensured economic independence and prosperity to those who even illegally came to Pakistan until 1960s. They probably still do now but chances are slim. Bottomline is religion was never used to create Pakistan rather it was the socio economic reasons of Muslims of India which created Pakistan and history has proved this.Recommend

  • Harris Ahmed

    Quaid was not a secularistRecommend

  • Harris Ahmed

    No mention of ppp and pmln?Recommend

  • Tight Patloon

    Very well said. But I think the religious parties would complicate matters for pakistan since pakistan is aid dependent country. If clerics win elections and come in power, it would further damage the image of Pakistan. But yes, these mad clerics can be later on be used to bring dowm Imran Khan as well.Recommend

  • vinsin

    So why Indian Muslim didnt move to Pakistan? What economic and social status are you talking about? So why Indian Muslim not moving to Pakistan and why Pakistan signed Liaqant Nehru Pact? Who came to Pakistan illegally untill 1960’s? Hindus has 50% share of Pakistan economy, what is their status now? How history has proved that? Pakistan Muslims want to come to India and work and some even begged for citizenships.Recommend

  • vinsin

    True, but people those who demanded and created Pakistan never moved. It was based on religion. So why Jinnah didnt allow his wife to continue her own religion? Why he opposed marriage of his own daughter to the extend that he abandoned her?Recommend

  • Anjum Malik

    This time IK is being used. Lets see who will be used in future.Recommend

  • Anjum Malik

    If the victory was controversial as the writer has said, how can we guess what was voters’ opinion?Recommend

  • Akhtar Naveed Syed

    The other parties are just just closet-extremists especially in case of PTI and PML-N while PPP, ANP showing a bit of moderate faces while others are non-mentionable fascists.Recommend

  • Patwari

    Well, see, majority of them, are so destitute, no jobs, penniless, that they don’t have two paisas to rub together in their pockets. Let alone buy a ticket to escape
    to Pakistan. Besides, they or their forefathers made the mistake to call Hindustan their home. Bad bad mistake. Their country where they are treated like outcasts, used as target practice, hung from trees, lamp posts, jamun trees, peepul trees, banyan trees, naryal trees, khajoor trees, neem trees [any trees left out?] oh! mango trees. And if they do use the Samjhota Express to leave, you Hindus will blow up the train,… anyway.
    Not much of a going concern is it ?…It’s their karma…Recommend

  • vinsin

    if Pakistanis by nature are moderate people then why they are not secular? Can you give some examples of Pakistani coming out on street demanding moderation and secularism and human rights?Recommend

  • Sarmad Hassan

    You are Right vinsin. He has weak historical background.Recommend

  • Sarmad Hassan

    You have made him Mum. Nice.Recommend

  • NJ

    Indian Muslims moved to Pakistan…. many were butchered by Hindus and Sikhs during partition. Indian Muslims were the ones who created Pakistan…so your question why Indian Muslims didn’t move doesn’t make sense. If you mean by all Muslims from each corner of India would or should have moved that is bit silly, as it is not possible, plus a lot of Indian Congress Muslims stayed in India in hope that they would one day rule over India but that didn’t happen, as in India, Muslims do not have equal opportunity to prosper. I’ve met many Indian Muslims here and they openly say that they are discriminated in an organized manner.Recommend

  • NJ

    Vinsin you obviously have no knowledge about Islam. Islam does not allow Muslims men or women to marry out of Islam especially if a woman is not from the “people of book”. And Muslim women are not permitted by Islam even to marry “people of book”. Mr. Jinnah simply followed this principle and he was right on both occasions when he asked Rutti to convert to Islam and stopped her daughter for the same principle not to marry a non-Muslim. Mr. Jinnah was a secular true Muslim.Recommend

  • ali

    so isn’t that’s good all the effort to make Pakistan secular is failing. it is not even close. Why not address the next blog to trump that to mind his business?Recommend