In the recently held presidential elections the opposition parties could not present the ruling coalition led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) with a significant challenge despite being in a position to win the top governmental slot of the country had one of the main opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party, supported the Jamiat Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) head, Fazlur Rahman’s candidature. Fazl was the joint candidate of the leading opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and JUI-F and was also backed by smaller opposition parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami, Awami National Party (ANP), Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP).
Why did the PPP not support the candidature of Fazl, despite having a very long political partnership with his party, including both remaining as coalition partners in government at the centre, is a very important question. The answer to the question why the PPP refused to withdraw its presidential candidate in favour of Fazl, lies in the reasons both the parties remained long-term allies in the first place.
It may be recalled that the JUI-F remained a junior coalition partner of the PPP during the second government of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (1993-96) and the party’s government from 2008-2013. The JUI-F joined the Benazir government because the then prime minister was convinced of Fazl and his party’s leadership’s dominating influence over the Afghan Taliban, as most of them studied at the JUI-F run madrassas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Karachi. It is also important to note that the Taliban emerged in Afghanistan in 1994, and captured power there in September 1996, and many Pakistani and international experts believe that Bhutto’s late interior minister, retired Major General Naseerullah Babar, was the architect of the Afghan Taliban. General Babar himself once told this writer that Benazir and he himself were wrong to assume that Fazl and the JUI-F had commanding influence on the Afghan Taliban, being their students. In fact, Fazl tried to create such an impression compelling otherwise astute Prime Minister Benazir to have an alliance with his party. However, for the JUI-F and Fazl, joining the Benazir government was tantamount to striking gold as the head secured extensive financial benefits from her government, particularly contracts for import of diesel due to which he was derogatively referred to as “Diesel Mullah”. So when the PPP today does not have any chance of forming the central government it does not need the JUI-F for its good offices to communicate and negotiate with the Afghan, or even Pakistani, Taliban groups, particularly when the latter are facing the worst period of their existence.
In 2008, the JUI-F formed an alliance with the PPP for the sole purpose to remain in power as the leadership of the party i.e. Maulana Fazlullah and his family only believe in power politics and want to enjoy power by any means possible. On the other hand, the PPP was compelled to make an alliance with the JUI-F because the PPP did not have the relevant number of members in the National Assembly to form the federal government. Knowing the PPP predicament, the JUI-F had agreed to the alliance after getting promises from the PPP, particularly PM Yousaf Raza Gillani, to get several ministries and appointments of its MPs as members of Senate and National Assembly standing committees, besides certain important departments.
In 2008, the JUI-F also entered into an alliance with the PPP to prevent any action against it by the ANP government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa for having links with the Taliban. Then the ANP used to repeatedly say, the MMA particularly, that the JUI-F during its government (2002-2007) had strong links with the Taliban. So, the JUI-F thought that if the ANP in KP would take any action it would pressurize its coalition partner the PPP, which also had an alliance with the ANP in KP and centre that it would resign if any action was taken against the party leaders and members for having links with the Taliban. This strategy of the JUI-F had been quite successful. During the PPP-JUI alliance for the first time the JUI-F had been able to have more than one federal minister with Maulana Attaur Rahman (brother of Maulana Fazlur Rahman) serving as the Minister of Tourism while JUI-F MNA, Rehmatullah Kakar (from Balochistan) got the Ministry of Housing. Maulana himself was the Chairman National Assembly Standing Committee on Kashmir, which is considered as a lucrative post. The rich party Senator Azam Swati (now in the PTI), was also a federal minister. On the other hand party Senator, Haji Ghulam Ali, from Peshawar was the Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting.
Therefore, despite the PPP and ANP knowing that the JUI-F had links with the Taliban, they could not take any step to arrest and punish the leadership of the JUI-F.
Then during the coalition of PPP-JUI-F from 2008-2013, the latter used to give an impression that it was acting “independently” despite being part of the ruling coalition. This pseudo independence was merely to pressurize the PPP government to get more and more share in power and get funds. Even then Fazl had restarted the talks for reviving the MMA just to pressurize the PPP for getting the very important slot of Chairman Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) and some other benefits like getting some more ministries. He also wanted to mount pressure on the PPP because the revival of the MMA and its component (JUI-F) would have meant the PPP was having an alliance with the Taliban apologists.
Here one can recall an important incident of 2012, when on the occasion of a pre-budget federal cabinet meeting, JUI-F ministers Maulana Attaur Rahman and Rehmatullah Kakar boycotted the cabinet meeting in protest because Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilliani had refused to increase the budget of their ministries in the coming national budget. After the meeting, the prime minister came out and he was asked how he would solve the problem with the JUI-F. On this, PM Gillani said that the JUI-F was blackmailing him and his cabinet and if they didn’t want to sit in the cabinet meetings than why they did not resign. But he (PM) then retorted that they would never resign as they just wanted to be part of the government and reap the benefits.
Another very important reason for the contrived independence of the JUI-F, like taking a different stand from the PPP and ANP during their government, was the issue of tackling Taliban extremism and terrorism. For example, the consistent stance of the JUI-F demanding talks with the Taliban which was to show the latter and other militants, that the JUI-F was on their side. It is important to note that the Taliban have had very strong connections with the JUI-F and sources revealed that the JUI-F had convinced the Taliban on the need for the party joining the government. JUI-F had been telling the Taliban that it was important that the JUI-F should be in the government because in this way it would be in a better position to defend the Taliban and raise a voice for them. However, it is also important to note that among the Taliban there have been reservations about JUI-F. This Maulana Fazl and his cohorts knew quite well. Therefore, to prevent the Taliban from harming party leaders the JUI-F had been opposing the government policies and constantly demanding from the PPP to soften its stand regarding the Taliban and talk to them. This all the JUI-F has been doing to save the skin of its leadership.
So the PPP has lost a lot by having long alliance with the JUI-F and politically it has lost a lot due to that reason. It also knew that helping JUI-F becoming president of Pakistan would be the last nail in the political coffin of the PPP. Therefore, it has finally decided to bid adieu to the JUI-F; but Fazl is a wily politician and no one knows when the PPP may need Fazl again.