LAHORE, Pakistan – (warsoor) – Pakistani cleric Hafiz Saeed is one of the United States’ most-wanted terrorist suspects, accused over the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. At home, his charities are banned, as is a new Islamist political party launched by his followers.
None of that has stopped Saeed from hitting the campaign trail for Pakistan’s July 25 general election, denouncing the outgoing government as “traitors” and whipping up support for the more than 200 candidates he backs.
“The politics of the American servants is coming to an end!” Saeed thundered at a rally this month in the eastern city of Lahore, where supporters showered him with rose petals.
The main race in Wednesday’s vote is between the party of now-jailed former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which is seeking a second consecutive term despite its leader’s downfall on corruption charges, and the party of former cricket star Imran Khan, perceived as the favorite of the powerful military.
But a bumper crop of ultra-Islamist groups are also contesting the poll, with the potential to reshape the political landscape of the nuclear-armed Muslim country of 208 million people with anti-Western rhetoric and calls for ever-stricter interpretation of sharia, or Islamic law.
The proliferation of religious parties appears to be a fulfilment of a proposal made by Pakistan’s military to “mainstream” armed Islamists and other extremists into politics, though the parties and the army deny any links.
Even if, as expected, they win few seats, liberal and secular-minded Pakistanis say the sheer number of religious party candidates, combined with their ultra-conservative rhetoric, has already shifted the agenda in their direction.
With the new parties routinely accusing opponents of blasphemy or treason, mainstream parties have echoed their language in attacking Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
“The ostensible attempt to mainstream the religious right-wing is not making these parties take relatively moderate positions,” said Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch. “But rather, it’s radicalizing the mainstream.”
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