Pakistanis head to the polls Wednesday in a general election characterized by a heavy presence of extremist parties — a development that threatens to strengthen religious radicalization in the South Asian nation, which has long struggled with domestic terrorism.
Right-wing religious factions have fielded more than 1,500 candidates at the provincial and national level, according to Reuters. Many of those entities espouse a fundamentalist agenda laden with anti-Western rhetoric and a desire for tougher application of Islamic law.
Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, for example, has 566 candidates and wants greater implementation of a law that carries a potential death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. In May, one of its members was deemed responsible for an assassination attempt on Pakistan's interior minister.
Other parties associated with terror outfits are officially banned in the country but their candidates are either running under different party names or as independents. The Milli Muslim League, whose leader Hafiz Saeed is the co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terror network behind the 2008 Mumbai attack, is officially outlawed but has around 260 candidates, Reuters data show. Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, believed to be a wing of Islamic State ally Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, also lacks legal standing but has more than 150 candidates.
Islamist parties — those that believe Islamic values should be applied to politics — are common in Pakistan, so their participation in this year's election isn't significant in itself. But their amplified presence could see ultra-conservatism grow.
"The particular worry for Pakistan’s long-term stability is the presence of candidates standing for and fear-mongering with ideas of dividing Pakistan’s social fabric, including through violence," said Antoine Levesques, research fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.