RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To Pakistan now, where former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned home yesterday to a jubilant welcome. Sharif had spent years living in exile after being overthrown by the country's current president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf. Today, Nawaz Sharif registered to take part in Pakistan's upcoming elections, scheduled for early next year. Likely to run in the elections, is an alliance of Islamist political parties. And that's causing some alarm within the Bush administration.

NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There are a number of good reasons for concern about Pakistan's upcoming elections. The nuclear-armed country harbors pro-Taliban militants along its border with Afghanistan. It's in the midst of political turmoil and a state of emergency. There's widespread and growing anger against the U.S. and the military dictatorship of General Musharraf. On top of all that, a collection of Islamist political parties will likely participate in the elections.

But Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, a terrorism expert and political analyst in Islamabad, says it's unlikely that is Islamists, especially Islamist extremists, will sweep to power in Pakistan.

Dr. PERVEZ HOODBHOY (Quaid-e-Azam University): I don't think there's much of a chance of the Islamist parties taking over Pakistani politics in the manner that Hamas did in the Palestinian territories. I do think that as a result of General 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 take over.

NORTHAM: A collection of six Islamist parties with different agendas formed a coalition during the last elections 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 University in Lahore, says most of their support 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 says the Islamists don't draw much support throughout the rest of Pakistan.

Dr. RASUL BAKHSH RAIS (Lahore University of Management Sciences): If I look at the (unintelligible) support base of the religious political parties in Pakistan, it is very much narrow. They have not been able to really reach out to the upper middle classes and even in to the ordinary people who really suspect them.

NORTHAM: Rais says it's important to understand that the religious political parties in Pakistan have worked within the constitutional framework of the country. Rais points to the largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami

Dr. RAIS: The Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan is truly a political party because it is non-sectarian and it has an Islamist agenda only through democratic means that it wants to pursue.

NORTHAM: Professor Khurshid Ahmad, the senior vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, says his party was formed in 1941 primarily as an ideological movement. But Ahmed said Jamaat-e-Islami has stayed within its original ideals of change through democratic social mobilization, even though some in the party are pushing to be more radical, especially when the Pakistan army launches attacks against pro-Taliban militants in its stronghold in the northwest region of the country.

Dr. KHURSHID AHMAD (Jamaat-e-Islami): We have never allowed our organization - despite all these attacks, deviations, provocations - to move in the direction (unintelligible) we have never. Because it is a matter of principle with us. Principle - that means and ends both must be correct.

NORTHAM: But Professor Hoodbhoy says 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 Hoodbhoy says the militants are often beholden to radical tribal leaders and have little need for the organized Islamist political parties.

Dr. HOODBHOY: 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. So these parties actually find themselves in the center so far as Pakistani politics is concerned.

NORTHAM: Hoodbhoy says the real issues in this election are security, social services, and putting food on the table. And Hoodbhoy says the Islamist parties have not come up with any manifesto to lead Pakistan out of what he calls the mess it's in.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

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