The Coming Fall of the MMA
The News, February 16, 2008
The man who until a few months ago was one of Pakistan's most influential politicians is now mostly confined to his rural home in a remote part of the country in Dera Ismail Khan. Maulana Fazlur Rahman cannot campaign publicly due to security concerns in an election that could drastically reduce his importance and cut down to size the MMA, the religio-political alliance that he and fellow Islamic political leaders led to a spectacular victory and power in the October 2002 general elections.
The maulana and his brothers live outside the city of Dera Ismail Khan and not far from the airport, which is deserted due to disconnection of PIA flights for quite sometime now. An under-construction mosque with its tall domes and minarets beckons from afar. The sprawling compound behind the mosque contains the row of houses belonging to the five brothers, four of whom are contesting the February 18 elections. The fifth, Ziaur Rahman, is a government employee and, therefore, ineligible to become a candidate for the polls.
Twice in recent months, the compound was attacked with rockets fired by unknown people. According to the maulana's youngest brother Obaidur Rahman, who is a candidate from the NWFP Assembly constituency comprising the city and its suburbs, the rockets fell in the agricultural fields on both sides of their houses but failed to cause any damage. On one occasion, the rockets were fired from the road just outside the compound and directly targetted Maulana Fazlur Rahman's home. The rocket attacks and subsequent intelligence reports put together by government agencies highlighted the danger to the maulana's life. Though the maulana isn't convinced that the militants linked to al-Qaeda and Taliban were plotting to kill him, he has been forced by his family members and party leadership to restrict his outdoor political activities. This has affected not only his own election campaign in Dera Ismail Khan and in neighbouring Bannu district where he is contesting another National Assembly seat but also that of his party, JUI-F, and MMA.
Visiting the maulana at his home a few days ago, one saw him delivering a speech on the phone to an election rally of his party in Ziarat in Balochistan province. Seated on a comfortable sofa in his spacious drawing room, he spoke in Pashto to a crowd sitting far away in a place so green, forested and pleasant that Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah selected it after falling ill to spend his last days. One wasn't aware of the impact that the maulana's speech would have made on the voters in Ziarat. His physical presence in Ziarat and the rest of Balochistan would certainly have made a difference and swung sections of the electorate to vote for his party candidates. Thanks to the London-based MQM leader Altaf Hussain who introduced the idea of telephonic speeches due to his inability or unwillingness to return to Pakistan on account of security concerns, this innovative method to keep in touch with supporters and run election campaign has now caught on. Islamic politicians, forever keen to make use of modern technology even if they initially suspect the western innovations to be some kind of a trap, are now increasingly using all kinds of phones, emails, SMS texts and websites to mobilize supporters, organize rallies and seek votes.
Though the maulana said he was able to visit five villages in Dera Ismail Khan the previous day and was planning to campaign in some more places that evening, it was obvious that the threat to his life has severely curtailed his movement and almost made him captive in his tightly-guarded home. His party activists are sending out CDs containing his speeches to compensate for his absence.
Making matters worse for the maulana is the split in his party, JUI-F, in Balochistan and also in some districts of NWFP and the disunity in the ranks of MMA following boycott of the polls by the Jamaat-i-Islami. A faction of the JUI-F led by Maulana Asmatullah has parted ways and formed a group known as JUI-Aaeeni, or the JUI Constitutional. It is challenging the mainstream JUI-F faction headed by Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani and has put candidates against party ticket-holders. This was a golden chance for the JUI-F to sweep the polls in Balochistan, particularly in the Pashtun belt due to the boycott of the elections by its major rival, Mahmood Khan Achakzai's Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP). But the emergence of the splinter JUI Constitutional faction and also the aloofness of top JUI-F leaders such as former MNAs Hafiz Hussain Ahmad and Maulana Noor Mohammad due to the denial of party ticket for the coming elections have spoiled its chances of success at the polls in Balochistan. In its NWFP strongholds, the JUI-F has encountered split in its ranks in Swabi, Swat and some other districts and dissidents are contesting election against party nominees. This would certainly result in defeat of several JUI-F candidates and further reduce the political clout of the MMA.
Being a realist, the pragmatic maulana conceded that the Frontier was heading for a split mandate in the elections. However, he was hopeful that the MMA despite the disunity in its ranks would emerge with the largest bloc of seats in the NWFP Assembly. In his view, MMA would have to be accommodated as part of the ruling coalition in the province and at the centre as the alliance would be holding the balance of power. Known for long to be nursing ambition to become the prime minister, he humorously remarked that the parties could agree to his becoming a consensus candidate in view of the likelihood of a split mandate at the centre as well. That is unlikely to happen. Neither PPP nor PML-Q and PML-N would forego claim to the prime minister's office in favour of someone like Maulana Fazlur Rahman with much fewer number of seats in the National Assembly. In fact, his best chance to grab the prime ministerial job was after the 2002 general elections when the MMA had almost 70 seats in the National Assembly and was the dominant electoral force in the NWFP and Balochistan. That is now history and there is no chance that the MMA would repeat its unprecedented electoral performance.
However, it would be wrong to underestimate Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who is widely acknowledged as a shrewd politician. One cannot help recall that his late father Mufti Mahmud too bargained for and got the chief minister's job in the NWFP despite having only three seats in the provincial assembly compared to 13 won by its coalition partner, National Awami Party, the predecessor to Khan Abdul Wali Khan's ANP. To his credit though, Mufti Mahmud resigned as chief minister some months later to protest the dismissal of Balochistan chief minister Sardar Attaullah Mengal by the then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on trumped up charges. That was probably the only time that a Pakistani politician gave up such a coveted position to uphold principles. Times have changed and Maulana Fazlur Rahman cannot claim or be expected to practice principled politics in a country where politics has become the name of a money-making and power-grabbing game and political parties have been turned into family businesses.
As for the Maulana, he possesses a trump card that would keep him and his ilk of Islamic politicians relevant even if they lose elections. Here is how he explained it: "The MMA is a wall that is blocking the militants and hardliners. If the MMA comprising moderate Islamic parties is removed from the scene and made irrelevant, then it would not be easy dealing with the militants, particularly the emotional young men among them, who believe in the power of the bullet unlike us striving for a peaceful change through the power of the ballot."