Page last updated at 10:12 GMT, Thursday, 14 February 2008

Pakistan shows signs of mullah fatigue

By Barbara Plett
BBC News, Mardan

In Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Islamists are rallying the vote for another shot at power.

JUI meeting in Mardan
The JUI has been rallying its supporters and defending its record

At a campaign meeting of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) Party in the city of Mardan, zealous seminary students and older men with beards and turbans fill the chairs.

They wave the party's black and white striped flags and chant slogans with fervour.

Five years ago, Islamist parties rode to victory on a wave of opposition to America's invasion of Afghanistan.

They swept the board in Mardan, capturing power in this province and sharing it in another. Now they're defending their record.

"They were saying that these clerics can't rule," says Shujaul Mulk, a JUI Member of Parliament from Mardan, "but we have shown how we can run the government. There was fiscal discipline, and we also did a lot to try and enforce Sharia."

Despite such confidence, it looks as if this time the Islamists will be routed.

Protest vote

The Islamic parties fought the last elections as an alliance, but they have been weakened by a split in their ranks.

Burial ceremony in Mardan
Islamist militants are suspected of targeting Pashtun nationalists

Some are urging their supporters to boycott the vote, they argue the process is flawed and polls will be rigged.

Voters are also fed up with the mullahs' performance.

"They had a government in this province for the past five years, but weren't able to complete development activities," said one man in Mardan's market.

"They took the vote in the name of Allah, but they didn't do anything," said another. "If they and other parties are the same, why are they taking the name of Islam?"

The Awami National Party (ANP), a Pashtun nationalist movement opposed to Islamists, is expecting to pick up the protest vote. So is the secular Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP).

Taleban opposition

But there's also another Islamist force, which favours violence over the ballot box.

Recently men filed silently through a graveyard close to Mardan, to bury a 17-year-old boy.

Fahim Jan died in a bomb explosion at an ANP rally, along with 29 other people. It's not clear who did this, but pro-Taleban militants are suspects.

ANP rally
The ANP says it will not be deterred by threats to its candidates

Over the last year they have spread their fight from the Afghan border throughout NWFP.

They target the army and the government, they oppose Islamic parties, and impose their own strict version of Islamic law.

Fahim's father, Fayez Muhammed Khan, insists he'll keep sending his sons to ANP meetings, even if they get killed.

The ANP continues its rallies under heavy guard, supporters waving their red flags and sporting the party's flat red caps.

Vicious cycle

But more than steadfastness is needed to defeat Islamic militancy.

"We are going towards a total fiasco, like what happened in Iraq," says Khwaja Muhammed Khan Hoti, an ANP candidate in Mardan.

And that means you can't refuse to deal with the militants.

"We must sit with [the Taleban], we must talk to them, we are from the same origin, we are from the same people, we've got the same language."

Mardan candidates also believe a democratic, civilian government would have more legitimacy to negotiate with the Taleban than one led by a former general, like President Musharraf.

JUI rally
Many are questioning the Islamists' record in office

That has yet to be proven, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, an expert on the Taleban.

"I don't think they have a strategy to deal with this," he says.

"All are saying that if they're in power they will negotiate with the Taleban, the extremists. That policy has been tried by Mr Musharraf. So I think the same policy will continue: military operations, peace accords, ceasefires, I think this trend will continue."

That trend of alternating negotiations and force is part of a vicious cycle: Pakistani militants support the Afghan Taleban's fight against Nato, who in turn tells Pakistan's army to stop them, and the militants hit back, spreading their influence in places like Mardan.

Despite the campaign fever, many Pakistanis doubt elections will break that cycle.

Observers say the turnout in Mardan is expected to be low, partly because voters fear violence, partly because many suspect the next government won't be any more effective at tackling the militants than the last one.

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