ISLAMABAD — One candidate was from a banned group, its leader under house arrest for past ties to armed militants. The other was from a movement built around the cult of an assassin and the belief that blasphemers against Islam deserve death.
Few people noticed the campaign posters pasted in many run-down alleys that featured these obscure, bearded figures and religious messages. Instead, the nation was waiting to see which of two mainstream political parties would win a crucial parliamentary election in Lahore this past Sunday.
But when the final results were announced, the two hard-line Muslim candidates had placed third and fourth in a race with numerous other contenders, winning 11 percent of the vote. It was a stunning debut for two Islamist groups that had shunned electoral politics but built devoted public followings, inspired by figures who used violence in the name of defending their faith.
It was also a sign that such groups, long considered to be at the fringes of Pakistani society, are making unprecedented inroads into the mainstream life of an impoverished, fast-growing country of 207 million. More than 90 percent of Pakistanis are Muslim, and many have felt increasingly frustrated by a lack of opportunities and justice under multiple leaders from the wealthy elite.
This development coincides with new accusations from the Trump administration that Pakistan is giving shelter to anti-Afghan militants and “agents of chaos,” which it has denied. The emerging religious groups have no connection with Afghanistan, but they have condoned violence against Hindu-led India or to support the honor of Islam.
The timing is also significant because the Lahore contest was seen as a prelude to national elections scheduled for next year. The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N and the opposition Pakistan Justice Movement came in first and second, respectively. But the two fringe religious campaigns did well with just a fraction of the publicity and effort, and with literally no prior political experience.
“The resurgence of the religious ultraright in politics ought to be a matter of concern for state and society,” the editors of Dawn, Pakistan’s leading daily paper, wrote Wednesday, noting that both candidates ran as independents at the last minute after their parties had problems registering.
“Testing by stealth the viability of mainstreaming militant groups is unacceptable,” they wrote. “The two radical campaigns bode ill for next year’s general election.”
Pakistan has several Islam-based parties, some of which are anti-West and pro-sharia but have been participating in the democratic electoral system for years. None has ever won a significant role in power, except from 2002 to 2008, when a coalition of religious groups governed the conservative northwest province now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Until now, though, extreme parties mostly have built support through mosques…