PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Malik Aslam was fired up with religious zeal the last time he got to vote in a national election.
The Peshawar shopkeeper, 35, put up posters and went door to door for Islamic fundamentalists who promised to bring honest, competent and pious government to Pakistan’s backward North West Frontier province.
Never again. Aslam has abandoned the clerics after watching what happened when they grabbed power here five years ago.
“They promised to give us justice,” Aslam says. “They gave us nothing.” He’ll vote in parliamentary elections today for the non-religious Awami National Party (ANP).
Support for Pakistan’s fundamentalist parties has vaporized, even in Taliban territory — the North West Frontier, along the rugged border with Afghanistan.
The narrow alleyways of this provincial capital are plastered with the red flags of the ANP and the red, green and black banners of the Pakistan Peoples Party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, who died in a suicide attack in December. The white flags of the fundamentalists are nowhere.
“I will never vote for these mullahs again,” says disgruntled contractor Zahid Khan, 32.
For the United States, the defeat of fundamentalist forces would be a scarce bit of good news from Pakistan. The fundamentalist parties openly support the Taliban militants fighting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pro-U.S. President Pervez Musharraf isn’t up for re-election today. But the election amounts to a referendum on his rule and is supposed to signal a return to full-fledged democracy, nearly nine years after the former army chief seized power in a coup. Musharraf’s favored party could go down in flames, forcing him to work with a hostile parliament that might even try to impeach him.
The campaign has been tumultuous. The vote was delayed for six weeks after Bhutto’s assassination Dec. 27 set off bloody riots.
The biggest threat to secular parties such as the ANP and Bhutto’s Peoples Party here in the North West Frontier is violence — not the verdict of voters. A suicide attack killed at least 40 people Saturday at a Peoples Party rally in a tribal area. A week earlier, at least 16 died when a bomb went off at an ANP rally outside Peshawar.
Pakistani voters have historically rejected the fundamentalists, says political commentator Mohsin Raza Khan, news director for ARY One World television. The last election — in 2002 — was an exception, at least here along the Afghan border.
The fundamentalists won 29 of the North West Frontier’s 35 seats in the National Assembly and grabbed control of the provincial government. They were exploiting public anger over the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001. The reason for the outrage: Nearly 75% of the province is ethnic Pashtun, the same as the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The clerics promised to deliver roads, schools and other projects to an impoverished province struggling with 65% illiteracy. They also vowed to govern honestly and to reject the ostentatious offices and homes that many Pakistani politicians enjoy. They even said they would get around on bicycles instead of official cars and sport-utility vehicles.
Five years later, voters here are fed up. A poll by the non-partisan, U.S.-funded International Republican Institute last month found that just 4% of adults in the North West Frontier supported the fundamentalists, down from 10% in September. The fundamentalist coalition got nearly 47% of the province’s votes in 2002 for the National Assembly.
How did the fundamentalists lose the people’s hearts and minds? “People everywhere in the world judge politicians on what they deliver,” says Nusrat Javed, political commentator for the Aaj television network. “The (province) is still as poor as ever, and the civil service is as bad as ever.”
Critics also say the clerics imitated the secular politicians they replaced. “After a year in power, they bought new houses and Jeeps and (Mitsubishi) Pajeros. They got second wives, younger ones,” Javed says. “In the end, (voters) are realizing that mullahs are as greedy as any godless politician.”
But Irsad ul-Haq Madni, a fundamentalist leader in Peshawar, says the clerics built dozens of schools across the province and didn’t waste taxpayer money bragging about it. He says he’s confident they will do well, no matter what the polls say.
The fundamentalist camp also is split. A major party in the religious coalition will boycott today’s election, sidelining its formidable political machine.
Moreover, the fundamentalists have been blamed for a rise in religious extremism across the province. Pro-Taliban militants have shut down video stores, hair salons and girls schools they view as un-Islamic, and they have staged suicide attacks.
Commentator Javed says the ANP will be competing “neck and neck” with the Peoples Party, which is benefiting from an outpouring of sympathy since Bhutto’s death.
Peoples Party posters here often show candidates in the shadow of a praying Bhutto. According to the International Republican Institute poll, 37% of North West Frontier adults intend to vote for the Peoples Party, up from 16% in November.
The newspaper Dawn noted Sunday that politics are unpredictable in the North West Frontier; no one expected the fundamentalists to dominate in 2002. The threat of violence could frighten voters from the polls.
Javed doubts the terrorists can intimidate the obstinate Pashtuns. “They can’t be coerced,” he says. “They will say, ‘Go to hell,’ ” and then head to the polls.