Elections, Illiberal Politics & Sectarianism in Pakistan: Pogroms against Hazara Shia

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Memo #206

By Nausheen H. Anwar – nha3383 [at] gmail.com

Pakistan will hold national elections in May 2013, marking the first time a civilian government completes a full five-year legal term. No small achievement for a nation that since 1947 has been marked by military coups and weak civilian rule. There are reasons to feel encouraged: constitutional reform promoting more balanced center-provincial institutional and political architectures, a media operating with fewer restrictions, and an increasingly independent judiciary all point toward the possibility of genuine consolidation of democracy. But the path ahead is challenging. The resurgence of sectarian violence and an electoral alliance between a key national party and sectarian militants points to a new dynamic.

Sectarian conflict in Pakistan is linked to two factors:  General Zia’s efforts to make Pakistan an Islamic state (1977-1988) empowered the Sunni clergy when Pakistan was a staging ground for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Many Mujahidin who fought under the banner of Islamist ideology later reinvented themselves as anti-Shia militants. Second, the Iranian Revolution further politicized Shia-Sunni relations.

Shias represent about 20% of Pakistan’s population. So far in 2013 nearly 200 Hazara Shias have been killed in bomb explosions in Baluchistan, and others have been gunned down in major urban centers. The Baluchistan government estimates that 758 Shias were killed between 2008 and 2012. The group claiming responsibility for the recent pogrom is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), linked with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and an offshoot of the anti-Shia Deobandi (Islamic revivalist) group Sipah-e-Sahaba or SSP (Pakistan Army of the Prophet’s Companions) patronized by General Zia in the 1980s to stem Shia influence.

As the countdown to elections begins, the national Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has formed an alliance with the SSP’s avatar, the Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat. This electoral alliance will field candidates in about 10-15 constituencies in Punjab, suggesting the mainstreaming of militant groups in a new phase of electoral politics in Pakistan. Thus far it is unclear what position other mainstream political parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party, Pakistan Tehreeq-e-Insaaf and the Awami National Party will take to reclaim a political space opposed to sectarian strife, a grave threat to a stable and democratic Pakistan.

Nausheen H. Anwar is currently a Research Fellow with the Asian Urbanisms Cluster, Asia Research Institute at the National University Singapore.

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