Pakistan’s recent national and provincial assemblies’ elections saw a significant number of candidates from religious extremist and terrorist outfits campaign. None of them won seats to Pakistan’s National Assembly and only two managed to win seats to the Sindh provincial assembly. On the surface, the elections were a setback for Pakistan’s extremists and terrorists. A closer look at the election campaign and voting trends, however, indicate that there is reason for concern as extremists may have emerged stronger from the July 25 elections.
Extremists in the Electoral Arena
Religious extremists and terrorists have contested and campaigned in Pakistan’s previous elections, but what set their participation in the recent elections apart was the unprecedented scale on which it happened. Of the roughly 12,000 candidates running for seats in national and provincial assemblies, over 1,500 were from extremist and terror groups (Gandhara, July 24). Among these groups were the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a proscribed Sunni extremist group. Formerly known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, ASWJ broke away from the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in 1996. It has a bloody record, having carried out hundreds of attacks on Shiite scholars, mosques and religious processions. The ASWJ fielded over 150 candidates in the recent elections, several of whom contested under the name of the Pakistan Rah-e-Haq party or as independents (Al Jazeera, July 15).
Another extremist outfit in the fray was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The TLP is the electoral front of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY). It is an organization of radical Barelvis formed in August 2015 to campaign for the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. The TLP fielded 571 candidates for the national and provincial assemblies (Daily Times, July 4).
The most controversial organization in the electoral arena was the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)/ Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD). The group has carried out scores of terror attacks in India, including the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai in which 166 people, including six Americans, were killed. The LeT and JuD have been designated as terrorist groups by the United Nations, the United States and India (Pakistan has only banned the LeT, not the JuD arguing that it is engaged in charity work). In August 2017, the LeT/JuD set up a political wing, the Milli Muslim League (MML), which was listed as a terrorist organization earlier this year by the United States (Dawn, April 3). With the Election Commission of Pakistan refusing to register the MML as a party, the LeT/JuD fielded its candidates on the platform of the Allah-u-Akbar Tahreek. Among its candidates for the National Assembly elections were the son and son-in-law of Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks who carries a bounty of USD 10 million on his head, as well as Muhammad Sheikh Yaqoob, a member of LeT’s central advisory committee, who is on the U.S.-designated terror list (Times of India, June 22).
Rise of TLP
With the exception of the TLP, extremist outfits did not win seats in the recent elections— nor were they expected to. This has been interpreted as voter rejection of extremist groups (Hindustan Times, July 28). “Even mainstream Islamist parties do not do well in Pakistani elections, although they are otherwise popular in terms of their rhetoric and in raw street power,” Madiha Afzal, author of Pakistan under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State told The Diplomat. “So parties that were further right or on the fringe, and certainly those with extremist links were expected to do worse,” she said. 
There is, however, reason for concern as a closer reading of the results and voting trends reveal a troubling picture. For one, the recent elections mark the entry of two extremist candidates into the Sindh Assembly. Leadership of Islamist groupings in Pakistan that were hitherto in the hands of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a relatively moderate alliance of Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, has shifted to the far more radical TLP. The TLP’s political and electoral rise over a short span of a year has been spectacular. On the streets, its sit-ins paralyzed Pakistan’s cities and even forced the resignation of Pakistan’s Law Minister, Zahid Hamid. In the election arena, its performance has been impressive. The TLP’s first attempt at electoral politics was in the Lahore by-election of September 2017, where it won 7,100 votes compared to the winner who secured 61,000. The group’s performance was significant as it stood third, pushing the Pakistan People’s Party to fourth place. The TLP improved on that performance in the recent elections, winning a total of two million votes across Pakistan, although it failed to win seats to the National Assembly. It stood third again in Lahore, and elsewhere in the Punjab province, it proved to be the spoiler between the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Importantly, two TLP members-turned-legislators will now sit in the Sindh Assembly (Rising Kashmir, August 13).
The large number of extremist candidates in recent elections owe much to the Pakistan military’s implementation of a plan to mainstream terrorist groups by nudging them to contest elections. Apparently, in 2016, the military proposed this plan to the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who turned it down. His removal from power in 2017 cleared the way for the plan’s implementation. Two weeks after Sharif’s exit, the formation of MML was announced (The News, September 17, 2017).
More recently, in June, the National Counter-Terrorism Authority lifted the ban on the ASWJ, clearing the way for its participation in the election. Its leader Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi was removed from the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act by Pakistan’s caretaker government. Ludhianvi’s assets were unfrozen and restrictions on his movement removed (Express Tribune, June 27).
Mainstreaming militants is aimed at getting them to moderate their views and methods by taking up ballot box politics instead of violent means. It has worked well in some situations, as in Nepal, for instance, where the Maoists gave up armed struggle, moderated their demands, contested elections and joined the political mainstream. This didn’t happen in Pakistan. None of the candidates, extremist organizations, or their leaders moderated their views or renounced violence (Dawn, July 23). In fact, the TLP leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi threatened to “wipe Holland off the face of the earth,” should it allow a cartoon drawing competition of the Prophet Mohammed. ASWJ chief Ludhianvi warned that not a single Shiite would remain alive in Pakistan if he came to power (Samaa TV, July 4; Daily Times, July 30).
Liberal Pakistanis have strongly denounced the strategy of mainstreaming terrorists. “Allowing extremists to enter the electoral arena is a mistake,” Afzal said, pointing out that “even if they don’t do well electorally, allowing their rhetoric in the political mainstream validates them and thus will only further radicalize Pakistan.” 
Pakistani analysts are arguing that bringing known terrorists like Saeed into the mainstream is not going to deradicalize them or make them more political or moderate. Rather, they warn this will radicalize society, (Indian Express, October 7, 2017).
The military’s strategy of mainstreaming terrorists distinguishes between what it describes as “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.” Bad terrorists, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which target the Pakistani state and have declared war on the military establishment, are not part of the military’s mainstreaming strategy. The mainstreaming strategy applies only to the good terrorists, i.e., the Pakistan military’s protégés and favored proxies such as the LeT/JuD, which serve as tools of its policy towards India. Mainstreaming organizations such as the LeT/JuD appears aimed at reducing international pressure on Pakistan by projecting them as political players.
Pakistan’s attempt at mainstreaming extremist and terrorist outfits by permitting them to contest elections is deeply flawed. None of these groups were required to renounce violence or moderate their views as a condition to contest elections. Their hateful rhetoric received much publicity at rallies. Although these outfits did not win seats in the National Assembly, they emerged as winners from the elections, having acquired a new respectability and legality. Rather than moderating them and bringing them into the political mainstream, Pakistan is in danger of normalizing extremism.
 Author interview with Madiha Afzal, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Pakistan under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State, Washington D.C., August 17.