By Islamuddin Sajid
A new far-right has emerged in Pakistan.
Newly-found political parties led by hardliners Hafiz Saeed and Khadim Hussain Rizvi have fielded hundreds of candidates for the national and provincial assembly seats in the upcoming general elections on July 25.
Rizvi, a wheelchair-bound cleric who belongs to the Sunni-Barelvi school of thought, heads Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a political party which is running its campaign around a controversial blasphemy law -- which has been used to hand down death sentences to people who allegedly abuse Prophet Muhammad.
The party has fielded 744 candidates.
Rizvi, rose to prominence after he led a three-week sit-in paralyzing life in capital Islamabad and adjacent Rawalpindi city, against constitutional amendment to a law which required elected officials to take oath that they believed in the finality of Prophet Muhammad.
Then-Law Minister Zahid Hamid, who was blamed for the amendment, resigned in the aftermath of the protest.
His campaign also eulogizes Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged to death in 2016 after being convicted by a court for the murder of Salman Taseer, then-governor of Punjab province.
Taseer had publicly supported a Christian woman on death row in a blasphemy case. Qadri, his bodyguard, shot him dead and handed himself to the police.
Rizvi appears confident about winning several seats in the election.
"I am confident most people in Punjab would vote for our candidate and they will win. But we will not make any alliance with all those parties whose MPs were in parliment at the time of amendments in elections laws,” he told his party workers at a gathering in Rawalpindi on Sunday.
Though Rizvi's party did not win any by-election in 2017, it secured thousands of votes in Peshawar and Lahore cities, giving stiff competition to other mainstream parties.
Saeed, who heads charity group Jamaatud Dawa (JUD), believed to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) -- a militant group active in disputed Jammu and Kashmir, has nominated 200 candidates.
His party started its election campaign under the name Milli Muslim League (MML) but changed it to Allah Akbar Tehreek (AAT), following a decision by the election commission.
In April 2018, the U.S. Department of State amended its designation of LeT as a terrorist group and identified MML as its affiliated group.
Saeed who is blamed for deadly bombings in Mumbai in 2008, which killed 166 people including six U.S. citizens, was placed under house arrest by Pakistan last January amid mounting pressure from the U.S.
Eleven months later he was freed following a court ruling.
In 2012, the U.S. announced a bounty of $10 million for Saeed.
Saeed denies any role in the Mumbai attacks.
Dent in vote
Analysts claim these parties enjoy support of low-income groups in the country, and may dent the vote bank of mainstream political parties.
Professor Aijaz Khattak, an Islamabad-based political analyst, said participation of these groups will have a negative influence on Pakistan's international standing, further reinforcing the image that Pakistan is not doing enough against terrorism.
“The participation of these groups in election will not only create problem for the state internationally but such parties can even physically endanger the leadership and supporters of mainstream parties in the country,” he said.
Mohammad Ilyas Khan, a Lahore-based journalist, said: "Both parties have strong position in some parts of southern and upper Punjab where they can win some seats in coming election."