- - Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pakistani voters are lining up behind terrorist-supported candidates ahead of next week’s parliamentary elections, underscoring how far radical forces have moved toward the center of power in the South Asian nation in recent years.

While predictions are widespread over how many extremist-friendly candidates will win seats, several ultra-right religious groups have fielded contenders for the July 25 vote for the National Assembly, which will in turn elect Pakistan’s next prime minister.

Roughly 200 candidates are from parties that previously were considered to be too far on the fringe of Pakistani politics to stand a chance of entering the assembly.

The leader of the biggest party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, is firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, who has led an aggressive campaign garnering the most attention among far-right groups.

“If I’m given the atom bomb, I would wipe Holland off from the face of the earth before they can hold a competition of caricatures,” Mr. Rizvi recently told journalists at the Karachi Press Club, referring to a Dutch competition of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The idea of bringing militant candidates into the mainstream was reportedly the brainchild of Pakistan’s powerful army, which floated the plan last year.

Nawaz Sharif rejected the notion as prime minister, but it gained steam after Mr. Sharif was pushed from office last July for a corruption conviction.

Police arrested Sharif last week, the same day an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 128 at a campaign rally in Pakistan’s north. The attack shook the nation’s political landscape with biting debates over how to deal with extremists.

Political observers have criticized the army’s suspected involvement in a plan to mainstream militant candidates. They say military leaders were seeking to empower militants who might support the military’s belligerent policies toward India and operations on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

“We are not disarming the radicals. We are not teaching them how to become good citizens and respect the true words of Islam,” said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based author of books on extremism in South Asia. “We are taking them lock, stock and barrel and inserting them with all their vices into the main political stream. This is no way to educate the people or to take the nation forward.”

Mr. Rizvi, meanwhile, shot to political fame as an outspoken cleric last year when he staged blockades that brought Pakistan’s capital to a halt with protests demanding that lawmakers reverse what he considered to be a blasphemous change they had made to the nation’s parliamentary oath.

The demonstrations resulted in the resignation of a key government minister. The development bolstered Mr. Rizvi’s legitimacy among religious voters.

Analysts predict the cleric’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik party is unlikely to win enough parliamentary seats to join the next government, but Mr. Rizvi is widely seen to hold significant influence.

“Rizvi’s Labbaik won’t make any major dents in terms of getting seats, but it will become a pressure group that can in the future hold sway,” said Sohail Warraich, a political analyst based in Lahore.

Another key player may be Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, a lesser-known party headed by Hafiz Saeed, a man widely accused of masterminding the 2008 terrorist attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai, India.

The United States has designated Saeed as a global terrorist. He was released from Pakistani custody last year, and Washington has offered a $10 million bounty for information that leads to his capture.

On the election trail in the Iqbal Town district of Lahore, Saeed ridiculed the U.S. and Indian governments for opposing his entry into Pakistani politics. “The world powers like India and U.S. created obstacles for us, but today we have won the first round against them,” he said. “We are now on the ballot.”

In a related twist, Pakistani officials recently unfroze the assets of Islamist cleric Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, a critic of Shiite Islam, and removed his name from the nation’s terrorist watchlist. Authorities also lifted a ban on Mr. Ludhianvi’s sectarian outfit, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, to allow the group to run candidates in next week’s elections.

The mainstreaming of the religious parties has coincided with reports that the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, a U.S.-aligned organization focused on combating international money-laundering, has raised alarm about Pakistan.

The organization announced last month that Pakistan would be kept on its “gray list.” Many observers saw the development as an indication that Islamabad has not been diligent enough in cracking down on terrorist financial networks.

To avoid placement on the Financial Action Task Force blacklist, Pakistani officials have agreed to a plan to choke off financing for the Islamic State, al Qaeda, the Haqqani network and others.

Pakistani voters who support extremist religious groups say such developments are signs that foreign institutions are biased against Islam and Pakistan.

“Every citizen of Pakistan has a right to contest the election,” said Mohammad Masood, one prospective voter in Lahore. “Why should religious parties be denied that fundamental right? Hafiz Saeed has done great service for his people, and that is why he’s been declared a terrorist by our enemies.”

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