Millions of people in the world's second-largest Muslim nation are preparing to head to the polls next week for national parliamentary elections.
A record number of 11,855 candidates are vying for 849 seats in Pakistan's general elections. More than a hundred political parties are taking part in the 2018 elections. Among them, an unprecedented number of Islamic extremists and sectarian groups, some with ties to Al Qaeda and terror-related violence.
One of the most prominent individuals on the campaign trail is Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the accused mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The United Nations declared him a terrorist and the US has a $10 million bounty for him.
Though he's not running himself, Saeed's political party the Milli Muslim League (MML), is fielding more than a dozen candidates. In April, the US State Department placed MML on its list of foreign terrorist groups, calling it a front for the Islamic terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which was co-founded by Saeed.
"Formed in the 1980s, LeT was responsible for the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India that killed 166 people, including six Americans, and has killed dozens of Indian security forces and civilians in recent years," the State Department said. "LeT continues to operate freely within Pakistan, holding public rallies, raising funds, and plotting and training for terrorist attacks."
Saeed's son, Talha Saeed, a designated terrorist under the US Treasury Department, is among 265 extremist candidates running in Pakistan's elections next week. Many of them have espoused radical Islamic sentiments and have expressed a desire to make Pakistan a "citadel of Islam."
Experts say there's no evidence that these militant candidates are prepared to shed their dangerous views.
"Their objectives are very clear, they may be sectarian in their nature, many actors they still believe in militancy and they haven't compromised or even they haven't given any indication that they are going to shun the violence," worries Mohammed Amir Rana, an analyst who tracks radical groups in the region for Pakistan's Institute of Peace Studies. "What we have seen is that they are expanding their outreach, and this election process somehow has provided them the breathing space."
At a recent campaign rally in Faisalabad, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed made it clear to the crowd his view of Christians and Jews.
"Our war against Crusaders, Hindus, and Jews will continue, they are all infidels," Saeed declared during his speech. "America says about us, 'don't let them get into mainstream politics, don't let them run in elections'. America understands that if we are in politics, the door to its intervention will be shut down."
Analysts warn the participation of these many radical groups could lead to the further radicalization and mainstreaming of terrorists in this largely conservative Muslim majority nation.
Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of Pakistan's National Assembly, says next week's election is a "brutal mockery" and that any government formed after election day "would be the first to lack credibility from its very first day."
"This is an unusual election because restrictions are in place on all moderate political parties previously preferred by voters, while extremists identified as terrorists by local and global authorities are free to participate," Ispahani wrote.
Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Wilson Center told the Associated Press that the involvement of the radical groups "in the election is highly significant, not because of their ability to sweep into power, which won't happen, but because of how they can use the political process to legitimize themselves and their extremist ideologies."
On Monday night, a coalition of five Islamic parties held a large rally in Karachi. Thousands attended the gathering where the alliance sought support for the implementation of strict Islamic laws known as Sharia. Leaders of the meeting accused the rulers of Pakistan of not doing enough to make the country more Islamic.
“MMA alliance is an ideological alliance. If we win the government for even one day, we will bring back the caliphate,” said Maulana Sirajul Haq, leader of Jamaat-e-Islami party. "Our first revolution will be economic. Votes shall be respected only if respect is given to Islam, Shariah, the Holy Quran and mosques."
Pakistan is overwhelmingly Muslim. Roughly two percent of the population is Christian, and they are often targets of numerous Islamic attacks.
"Much of the Christian persecution in Pakistan comes from radical Islamic groups that flourish and expand under the favor of political parties, the army, and the government," said Open Doors, which has listed Pakistan in the top ten of worst places in the world to be Christian.
Experts say giving political space and freedom to these Islamic groups makes combating extremism all the more challenging.
"By bringing the often-toxic views of these groups into the political mainstream, Pakistan's already-enabling environment for extremism risks becoming all the more permissive," added Kugelman.
Pakistan has been in the midst of a political crisis since last July when the Supreme Court removed the sitting prime minister Nawaz Sharif from office over corruption charges.
During his tenure, Sharif was critical of Pakistan's powerful military establishment and attempted to limit their powers from civilian affairs. He also criticized the military for not doing enough to combat Islamic extremism within the society.
Experts say many of the radical extremist groups cannot operate or function without the backing or permission of Pakistan's military and intelligence agency.
"The military establishment uses these radical extremist groups when it sees fit," a Pakistani-born analyst told CBN News. "These groups cannot exist without the hand of protection of the military; They feed them, nurture them and use them when necessary."
Some believe the military establishment needs these radical extremist groups now to prevent Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League, from winning the majority of seats in parliament.
"The military derives benefits from having these hard-line outfits in the state of electoral play," Kugelman told AP. "They have the potential to attract votes from some of the more conservative supporters" of the Pakistan Muslim League.
Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan from London last Friday and was immediately arrested. He faces a 10-year jail term for corruption charges. He is appealing the sentence.
"The military is not at all comfortable with the prospect of the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League) winning another term," Kugelman told German newspaper Deutsche Welle. "It clashed repeatedly with the PML-N over the last five years, so the military will have a strong motivation to use its influence behind the scenes to undercut the PML-N's electoral prospects."
In the meantime, keeping the country safe ahead of next week's election is a big concern. 149 people were killed last week when a suicide bomber hit a campaign rally in the southwestern part of the country. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pakistan says it will deploy some 350,000 security personnel outside as well as inside polling stations on election day.
Did you know?
God is everywhere—even in the news. That’s why we view every news story through the lens of faith. We are committed to delivering quality independent Christian journalism you can trust. But it takes a lot of hard work, time, and money to do what we do. Help us continue to be a voice for truth in the media by supporting CBN News for as little as $1.