Home Editorial Editorial: Pakistan’s Religious Parties on the Back-foot

Editorial: Pakistan’s Religious Parties on the Back-foot

Despite securing nearly 12% of votes in the 2024 general elections, religious parties have failed to attract sufficient support to reach Parliament

by Editorial

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Of 166 political parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), around 25 have religious leanings, with their names highlighting their Islamist or sectarian affiliation. Particularly notable among these are the JUIF; Jamaat-e-Islami; Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan; Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen; Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party; Pakistan Markazi Muslim League; JUI-Nazriati; and—now—the Sunni Ittehad Council. All but the SIC actively participated in the 2024 elections, failing to make much electoral headway, highlighting how their influence in Pakistani politics goes beyond winning elections. In the 2020 book Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving Between Dictatorship and Democracy, contributor Johann Chacko highlights that “despite poor electoral results Islamist parties have collectively played an outsized role in national political life—particularly in shaping discursive norms.”

According to the book: “This distinctive trajectory of Pakistan’s religious parties has been determined by South Asia’s intra-sectarian denominational diversity, which operates in the context of competitive politics within a populist Islamic republic overseen by an authoritarian weak state.” This is evident from all Islamist parties utilizing broad rhetoric, but each prioritizing a specific religious denomination within Pakistan’s diverse Muslim population and claiming to represent its interests within the political system. The JI has traditionally attempted a more inclusive approach, while the JUIF focuses on the Deobandi school of thought and the TLP the Barelvi branch, and the MWM is largely focused on the Shia community. A Karachi-based researcher studying Islamist movements notes this focus on specific denominations limits such parties’ broader appeal to the entire electorate. Historically, they have struggled to secure footholds in Punjab and Sindh—accounting for 74% of Pakistan’s population—but have proven competitive in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

However, the 2024 elections have dented the standing of all politico-religious parties across Pakistan. A report compiled by Gallup Pakistan has found Islamist parties received almost 12 percent of votes nationwide. After the PTI-backed independents, PMLN and PPP, the TLP has proven most popular with 2.8 million votes, but has only secured one seat in the Punjab Assembly. The combined votes received by the JUIF (2.1 million) and JI (1.3 million) are only slightly more than that of the TLP. This indicates a support base, but one that is insufficient to get them into Parliament. This was most obvious in Karachi, where the JI was sidelined by the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan; and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where JUIF was similarly dismissed by the PTI. According to Bilal Gilani, the head of Gallup Pakistan, the key issue facing all Islamist parties—except the TLP—is finding a way to make themselves attractive to new voters.

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