Earlier this week, Faisal Sakhi Butt, the PPP nominee for one of Islamabadâ€™s two seats, visited the local office of Majlis Wahdat Muslimeen (MWM), the newest kid on the Shia party block.
The MWM, which has been around for a few years, came to prominence earlier this year, when it helped organise countrywide protests in the wake of the devastating bomb attacks in Quetta that took the lives of the Shia Hazaras.
Buttâ€™s agenda for the meeting was no secret. He asked for the support of the MWM for the May elections, requesting that the party withdraw its own candidate for NA-48 and support his candidature.
The request was not unusual as the Shia community is traditionally thought to vote for the PPP. However, Butt was turned down flat.
â€œWe are contesting the elections to give a voice to the people who are upset by the poor performance of the PPP government,â€ the MWM candidate, Allama Asghar Askari, told Butt.
The incident reflects the general impression that the PPPâ€™s perceived failure to check the growing attacks on the Shia community has alienated its traditional supporters within the community.
This perception is rather strong despite the fact that two of the older Shia parties are still aligned with the PPP â€” the Islami Tehreek headed by Allama Sajid Naqvi has made an alliance with the PPP while the supporters of Tehreek-e-Nifaz Fiqh Jaferia led by Allama Hamid Moosvi are traditionally known to vote for the PPP.
However, the MWMâ€™s decision to enter the electoral fray and contest the elections across the country has given rise to questions and speculation about the Shia vote causing an upset this time around.
Indeed, the MWM is attracting attention for a number of reasons. The first of course is its impressive debut in the protests after the Hazara attacks. The peaceful protests across the country took everyone by surprise and forced the PPP-led government in Islamabad to impose governorâ€™s rule in Balochistan. What was particularly impressive was the partyâ€™s ability to organise protests in Karachi where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement is seen to have the street muscle.
Second is the number of candidates the party has fielded: 127. These include 80 contestants for National Assembly seats and 47 candidates for all four provincial assemblies. At the same time, its candidates are not from the â€˜usual stockâ€™; not all of them are ulema or even Shia. While the MWM has fielded a woman on a provincial seat in Karachi, at some places it has even nominated Sunni candidates.
But despite the partyâ€™s high profile and the mood of the Shia community, will it manage to win seats?
It is difficult to say anything for sure at the moment not just because the MWM is new but also because in the past the Shia community has never voted as a bloc. â€œThe people of Pakistan do not vote for sect-based parties; this has been repeatedly reflected in various election results,â€ said Haris Khalique, a newspaper columnist and poet based in Islamabad. However he hastened to add that â€œthe MWM case is different because it is benefiting from a reaction to the existing sense of persecution among Shia population in country.â€
At some level, the party is aware of this paradox which helps explain its three-pronged electoral strategy. At the top are the â€œcore seatsâ€, which are constituencies with considerable Shia votes. In this category the party has fielded its own candidates.â€
We have strong candidates for constituencies with major Shia population,â€ said Nasir Sheerazi, secretary of the political wing, MWM.
In the second category it has placed those constituencies where there is a Shia vote large enough to play a role; here the party is trying to form local level alliances or seat adjustment arrangements with other players. â€œNegotiations are under way where there is a sizeable Shia population,â€ he added.
Third are the constituencies where the party wants to play the role of a spoiler or send a message to particular parties. This third category includes seats such as the one in Jhang which is to be contested by Sheikh Waqasâ€™ father, Sheikh Muhammad Akram; the MWM will support him against Ahmed Ludhianvi, the chief of the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba renamed as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat.
Similarly, the party plans to support Riaz Peerzada, the PML-N candidate from Bahawalpur. â€œOur main objective is to block extremists in politics, get rid of criminal elements and pave the way for tolerant people to be active in the electoral process,â€ Mr Sheerazi said without naming any party.
Despite its public intentions to support PML-N candidates such as Peerzada, the MWM has not held any formal talks with the top PML-N leadership.
In other areas in Punjab, the MWM is also hopeful of making its mark in areas such as Bhakkar.
Local journalists feel that in the current situation the MWM might just make a difference â€” it is difficult to predict the impact though.
â€œThe reaction to the lack of performance by the mainstream parties will reflect in the election results,â€ said Muhammad Pervaiz Durrani, a journalist who runs a local FM radio in Layyah.
He was of the opinion that the degree of awareness among the voters and the improved communication tools would help the smaller parties that do not have a local party set-up in every nook and corner of the constituency.
â€œThere is a large Shia population in Bhakkar â€” many of them have arrived from Dera Ismail Khan and other parts of KPK due to terror threats there. A reactionary vote from them could favour the MWM,â€ Mr Durrani added. The MWM leadership is banking on this reaction as well.
It is noteworthy that in Punjab the MWM can tap into the Shia vote because the sectarian lines overlap with other faultlines â€” for instance in Jhang, the Sunni vote tends to be that of the Punjabi migrants who came over at the time of partition while the Shia voters are the indigenous population. The overlapping, say observer, can make it easier for the MWM.
However, in Karachi this is exactly what can work against the MWM as the Shia voters in the city tend to vote on ethnic lines. Despite this, the MWM is surprisingly hopeful about its electoral fortunes in this city.
The party has pinned its hopes on four national assembly and seven provincial assembly seats in the city â€” the constituencies are the ones that include Soldier Bazaar, Rizvia Society, Incholi and Malir area. They are NA-252, NA-253, NA-257 and NA-258 and PS-94, PS-102, PS-117, PS-118, PS-119 PS-126 and PS-127.
However the MQM is not impressed. â€œAll the parties have right to contest elections, but the MQM and Shia voters are educated and mature people. They are opposed to sectarianism,â€ said Wasay Jalil, the MQM spokesman .
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the MWM has its eyes on Dera Ismail Khan. It has fielded a candidate for a provincial assembly seat here though the candidate is contesting independently â€” this is because he is a consensus candidate who also enjoys the support of Allama Sajid Naqvi and a few Barelvi groups.
Overall however it is difficult to predict how well the MWM will do electorally. Its ability to win over voters as well as to counter the appeal of the Shia candidates of other parties will prove to be no small hurdle.
This is something most voters also realise. â€œWe vote for someone who is known to us as an individual or as a member of clan,â€ said Syed Sarfraz Hussain Gardezi, a local leader of Islamabad, who added â€œPolitics is not akin to standing behind a prayer leader during namaz.â€