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date: 15 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Islamist parties in Pakistan are theologically diverse but grouped as such because of their belief in the state enforcement of religious law (shariah). While they have only achieved modest levels of electoral success, the country’s Islamist parties are considered important due to their ability to mobilize street power, lobby the state and judiciary from outside of parliament, and serve as key electoral allies of mainstream parties. In addition, these Islamist electoral groups employ a range of violence strategies. Many of these parties maintain militant wings, possess linkages with extremist Islamist outfits, and/or engage in violent politics on university campuses through their affiliated student groups.

Existing literature suggests that violence by political parties has certain electoral benefits. First, it serves a coercive function, by intimidating voters to stay home on election day or compelling them to vote a certain way. Second, it can serve to polarize the populace along identity-based lines. However, given the limited success of Islamist parties in elections, it seems unlikely that their involvement in violence serves only an electoral purpose. In particular, much of the parties’ violent activity seems, at least at first glance, unrelated to electoral activity.

Why, then, do Islamist parties utilize violence? Violence wielded by Islamist parties in Pakistan serves three functions. First, Islamist electoral groups are able to leverage their unique position as a part of the system with close linkages to militant actors outside of it to effectively pressure the state on a range of policy matters. That is, violence works to advance the party’s strategic goal of lobbying the government from outside of the legislative system. Second, the use of violence serves an ideological function by, for example, targeting specific sects and minority groups, fighting Western influence, and supporting the liberation struggle in Kashmir. The use of violence also helps prove to ideologically aligned militant actors that the parties are on “their side.” Finally, the use of violence can also serve purely electoral purposes. Like other identity-based parties, making salient a particular schism at opportune times can work to increase one’s own vote bank at the expense of other secular parties.

Keywords: Pakistan, political parties, religion, religious violence, political violence, Islamist parties, politics and religion

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