Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who returned home to jubilant crowds over the weekend after years in exile, pledged Monday not to enter into a power-sharing deal with embattled President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
It is likely that Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in a 1999 military coup, will take part in the country's parliamentary elections scheduled for early next year. Also likely to run in the elections is an alliance of Islamist political parties, which has caused some alarm within the White House.
There are good reasons to be concerned about the upcoming elections in nuclear-armed Pakistan. The country is currently under a military-imposed state of emergency, and there is growing discontent with Musharraf's leadership. Pro-Taliban militants operate freely along the western border with Afghanistan. And there is widespread and growing anger against the United States.
Pervez Hoodbhoy, a terrorism expert and political analyst in Islamabad, said the fear that Islamists — especially Islamist extremists — will sweep to power in Pakistan is overwrought.
"I don't think there's such a chance of the Islamist parties taking over Pakistani politics in the manner Hamas did in the Palestinian territories," Hoodbhoy said. "I do think as a result of Gen. Musharraf's mistakes and his failure as a political leader that the Islamists have gained an enormous amount of strength. But in terms of electoral politics, no chance that they will.
A collection of six Islamist parties, each with a different agenda, formed a coalition during the last poll in 2002. They were able to garner about 16 percent of the vote, much higher than in previous elections.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lums College in Lahore, said most of the support for the Islamist parties came from the tribal areas along the Afghan border, and that people voted in those regions out of anger over the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Rais said the Islamists do not draw much support from the rest of the country.
"If you look at the base of the religious political parties in Pakistan, it is very narrow," he said. "They have not been really able to reach out to the upper middle classes and to the ordinary people."
Rais said it is important to understand that the religious political parties in Pakistan have worked within the constitutional framework of the country. He points to the largest such party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
"The Jamaat-e-Islami is truly a political party, because it is nonsectarian, and it has an Islamist agenda only through democratic means that it wants to pursue," he said.
Professor Khurshid Ahmad, the senior vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, said his party was formed in 1941 primarily as an ideological movement. But Ahmed said Jamaat-e-Islami has stayed with its original ideals of "change through democratic social mobilization." Even so, some in the party are pushing for a more radical stance, especially as Pakistan's army launches attacks against pro-Taliban militants in the country's northwest.
"We have never allowed our organization — despite all of these attacks, deviations and provocations — to move in the direction of militancy. It is a matter of principle with us, that means and ends both must be correct," Ahmad said.
Professor Hoodbhoy said the Islamist parties do little to stop extremists from carrying out suicide bombings or other attacks and condemn the Pakistan military whenever it takes action against suspected terrorist strongholds. But he said the militants are often beholden to radical tribal leaders, and have little need for organized parties.
"The Islamist parties may have secret sympathies with the Taliban and al-Qaida, but those guys have gotten far beyond what even these parties can advocate," Hoodbhoy said. "So, these parties actually find themselves in the center so far as Pakistan politics is concerned."
Hoodbhoy said the real issues in this election are security, social services and putting food on the table, and he said the Islamist parties have not come up with any plan for leading Pakistan out of what he calls "the mess it's in."