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Once Allied, Religious Parties Compete Against Each Other In Northwest Pakistan

A supporter of the religious party Jamaat-e Islami takes pictures with a mobile phone as he holds Pakistan's national flag during an election campaign rally in Karachi.
A supporter of the religious party Jamaat-e Islami takes pictures with a mobile phone as he holds Pakistan's national flag during an election campaign rally in Karachi.
Standing amid a crowd of more than 200 supporters displaying banners and posters and chanting campaign slogans, a local candidate for the Jamaat-e Islami (JI) party is promising Shari'a law to residents of a stronghold for Pakistan's religious parties -- the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Just a few kilometers away, a rival candidate from the Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal (JUI-F) party is touting his Islamic credentials to another group of potential voters.

Elsewhere in the province's Nowshera district, a candidate from Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Sami (JUI-S) unveils the religious agenda he will take to the national parliament should they vote him into office.

All three candidates are running in Pakistan's May 11 general elections, and all are taking pains to separate themselves from their rivals to win seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's legislature.

It wasn't always this way for the mainstream religious parties in the province and elsewhere in Pakistan's restive northwest, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In 2002, the three parties ran under the same banner, Muttahidda Majlis-s Amal, and managed to defeat their secularist and moderate rivals -- the Awami National Party (ANP) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) -- and take over the provincial government.

But the alliance fell into disarray by the time of the 2008 polls, which the JI boycotted nationally. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa race was won by the ANP, which formed a ruling coalition with the PPP. After the election the JI withdrew altogether, and the alliance folded.

Now, the former allies find themselves competing against each other at both the local and national levels.

The three parties have nearly identical political agendas: they seek the introduction of Islamic law, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, peace negotiations with all Taliban groups, and an end to drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas.

In seeking to differentiate themselves, the parties have turned to mudslinging -- to the potential benefit of the province's secularist and moderate parties.

When asked to comment on the prospects of forming an alliance with the JUI-F, a senior JI leader referred to its former partner as "a party of property agents." The "JUI-F is no longer a party of ulema [religious scholars]," added professor Mohammad Ibrahim Khan, the head of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's JI branch. "It has become a party of rich people."

The JUI-F retorted with a statement, published in the media, that alleged that the "JI is being run with dollars of foreign NGOs and the party is promoting secular politics in the country."

Such tit-for-tat exchanges have become a daily feature of the campaign and are causing serious divisions among the parties' supporters.

"Of course this is going to divide our vote pool, which will benefit our rivals," lamented Sahibzada Haroonur Rashid, a former member of Pakistan's parliament and the head of JI in the FATA. Rashid is running on JI's ticket in the Bajaur tribal district, where he faces a tough challenge from the JUI-F candidate.

Jan Mohammad Achakzai, the international media coordinator for JUI-F head Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is seen to be a rising political force in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tells RFE/RL that the party promotes moderate politics and should not be considered a hard-line religious party.

Presenting a copy of the JUI-F manifesto, Achakzai says the party believes in the sanctity of the elections, wants Pakistan to be a social-welfare state, and endorses a soft image of Islam.

Analysts believe that although the election campaign violence and allegations of corruption could prove a serious blow to the secular ANP and PPP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it's doubtful the province's religious parties can regain the majority they achieved in 2002, leaving room for the secular and moderate elements to maneuver in the future provincial government.

-- Daud Khattak