While we are currently obsessed with the PTI vs PML-N death match, there is another issue related to the upcoming elections that no one is paying attention to. Part of the reason is that what is developing is out of the English-speaking bourgeois space of Twitter and Facebook, and is more a “real world” development. This is the normalisation of the religious far right.

While I have no sympathy for the PML-N leadership that has its fingers in every corruption mud pie, their downfall means a vacuum. The PTI army, omnipresent on social media, feels that this vacuum will be filled by the PTI. It is hoped by the PTI that the 22 per cent of Pakistani voters who are undecided ahead of July 25 (election day) would now bank with them after the Avenfield judgement. However religious parties may stand to benefit from the PML-N debacle.

The vote bank of the PML-N is largely conservative and while the PTI is also conservative, it appeals to urban sections and the youth. The rest of the country is still fair game.

Thus in the arena are present the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), the rebranded Muslim Milli League (the political face of the Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD) and the removal of legal hurdles for candidates affiliated with the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ).

Just last year, in the by-election in the National Assembly constituency NA-120 (Lahore-III) two candidates backed by religious parties, Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah and the Muslim Milli League, finished third and forth, winning together about 11 per cent of the vote cast. They chipped away the PML-N vote.

Individuals from all walks of life and of all political opinions should be allowed to contest elections. However, there has to be some requirement to renounce violence and pledge support for a democratic, constitutional form of government. The rhetoric instead is often an incitement to violence and an attempt to spread sectarian discord.

The TLP has been able to field 150 candidates for the National Assembly across the country and the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, the latest incarnation of the Lashkar e Taiba’s political wing, has managed to field 50 MNA candidates in Punjab and KP. The contentious issue of mainstreaming and the myriad policy and legal questions that are raised cannot simply be brushed away. But they are.

No one, much less the only party really standing, the PTI, cares to talk about its own links to questionable militant groups, or what a counter-terrorism policy means if it wins. In a sense the PTI is much like the religious parties. The driving slogan/aim is simple, anti-corruption. The religious parties are the same- every op-ed Jamaat-e-Islami Amir Sami Ul Haq has ever written in English is about corruption. The religious parties just have a lot more emphasis Islamisation and anti-minority stands- and the PTI never had a problem with that in KPK. These are natural alliances waiting to form.

The problem is that we may see a starker shift to the right in Pakistan with the PML-N not providing a viable balance and moderation of the extreme right vote. The PPP is a former shell of itself and its shift away from the left was the end of the socialist and liberal left in Pakistan- even if (and maybe because) their experiment with socialism was such a disaster.

What is heartening is that there are fringe movements that are rebellious, have an idea and ideology beyond just anti-corruption, an obsession that does not fill bellies and provide jobs. These include Jibran Nasir fighting as an independent (NA-247) and the Awami Worker’s Party. Even if we do not agree with alternative ideologies, we need them desperately to pose a challenge to the center-right and extreme-right way of manipulating economy and society. We will not sort our problems if every party has the same members, has the same slogans, and originated from the same fountain of military patronage. Our problems won’t change, neither will our solutions, and we can hang, exile and jail as many miscreants we want in the process.

Al Jazeera, for one, has reported on how hard-liners are being mainstreamed in Pakistan and asks who is behind this? The answer may be uncomfortable to answer or digest. In either case right-wing populism is in the offing, and will reflect what is happening across the world and across the border.

 

n          The writer is studying South Asian history

and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.