WASHINGTON - As a new caretaker government assumes control in Pakistan and the country prepares for general elections in July, Pakistan's Election Commission (ECP) this week held a session in Islamabad with representatives of major political parties in which party representatives urged the commission to bar militant-turned-political parties from participating in the election.
Zahid Khan, a leader of the Awami National Party (ANP) and former senator, told VOA that ECP officials and party representatives, in their meeting Thursday, also discussed measures taken to prevent vote rigging and the importance of conducting timely elections across the country.
“One of our main concerns, on what all the political parties had a consensus, was the measures taken by ECP to bar the militant-turned-political parties to participate in upcoming elections,” Khan said.
“We categorically told the Election Commission it is their duty to stop such elements from entering the political arena. It is against the constitution and the National Action Plan,” he added.
The National Action Plan is a 20-point strategy adopted in 2015 to combat terrorism. The plan states that no banned groups can operate in the country by changing names or identity.
The current parliament completed its five-year term on Thursday, and a caretaker government has taken over until the July 25 election, which will determine the ruling party and the next government.
The electoral body said it was vigilant and aware of the concerns expressed by political parties and would not allow any banned group to participate in the elections.
"The Election Commission works according to the law and constitution of the country,” commission spokesperson Altaf Ahmad told VOA.
“One example is the Milli Muslim League, a party with alleged ties to a banned militant group, was not allowed to be registered once the government and intelligence agencies lodged their concerns about MML to ECP,” Ahmad added.
Milli Muslim League, a political party established last year, is linked to Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistan-based, U.S.-designated global terrorist and leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
Last year, the government of Pakistan wrote a letter to the Election Commission, declaring that Milli Muslim League was a front organization for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a U.S.-designated terror organization with links to Saeed.
MML and its leadership were declared terrorists by the U.S. State Department in April this year.
Some analysts, like Rasul Baksh Raees, a Lahore-based security expert, believe that while the decision to disqualify MML from participating in general elections is laudable, many other hardline radical groups are registered with ECP under new names and identities.
"The point of concern is the registration of extremist political parties, such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan or Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat, who are contesting these elections. The National Action Plan clearly instructs the government to take measures to bar religious extremist parties,” Raees told VOA.
Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, is a political party that was established last year. Its members say they want to continue the legacy of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of Salman Taseer, Punjab’s governor, who killed the governor in 2011 after Taseer demanded changes to the country’s controversial blasphemy law.
Qadri was hanged by the state in 2016, but his grave has turned into a shrine for those who admire his stance on Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
TLP is aiming to field its contestants in the upcoming elections.
Similarly, Alh-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), a banned group, is reportedly planning to run for seats as independent candidates and through the platform of Pakistan Rah-i-Haq Party (PRP).
ASWJ is the political front for Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a radical group that is blamed for deadly attacks against the country’s minority Shiite Muslims.
Both SSP and ASWJ have been placed on Pakistan’s terror watch list.
Another banned group, Tehreek-i-Jafria Pakistan (TJP), a Shiite Muslim sectarian religious organization, is registered with the ECP under the name of Islami Tehreek Pakistan (ITP) and is also considering running for seats in next month’s elections.
TJP also goes by other names, including Tehreek-e-Islami (TEI) and Tehreek-e-Fiqah-e-Jafria (TFJ).
The mainstreaming of several banned militant groups in Pakistan has raised concerns and led some analysts to question the government’s willingness to hold such groups accountable and ban them from politics.
“The emergence of hardliner political parties is alarming. But what is more alarming is: What measures are the government and ECP taking to stop this from happening?” Raees asked.
The Election Commission officials say that declaring groups as banned or free is not their duty. The country’s law enforcement authorities have made that determination.
“It is not our duty to declare any group or party as a proscribed outfit. This duty lies with the Interior Ministry and government of Pakistan,” ECP spokesperson Ahmad said. “ECP makes sure the legal procedures and requirements are fulfilled, and only after that it allows the parties to register with the national electoral body.”