In foreign parts

There is only one other female besides me at a rally for Islamic fundamentalists and she is a five-year-old Pakistani, in candy floss pink. In a shrill voice, like a tape recorder being fast-forwarded, Sumbal denounces the Americans from centre stage.

"First they kill thousands of our Afghani brothers and sisters," she says, her black eyes flashing. "Next, they want to control us here in Pakistan."

The crowd of 400 bearded men erupts in applause and her teacher beams. Sumbal is the best student at the Muhammed Bin Qasami Academy and she has not stumbled over a single word of her memorised speech.

The noon sun strikes our heads like a blade in this remote goat pasture, near the Indus river, surrounded by flinty hills. Pakistan has an election on Thursday, and campaigning for what looks certain to be a hung parliament has been decidedly muted.

More speeches and prayers drone on, until the local parliamentary candidate, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, approaches the podium. With his Father Christmas beard and gentle demeanour, he appears more a sage than a firebrand.

Illiterate voters can recognise Mr Ahmed's new party by its symbol, the book. Formerly the voice of the puritanical Jamaat-e-Islami, Mr Ahmed now speaks for half a dozen fringe groups from the religious right, which merged last summer in an effort to survive as a political force.

Their alliance, called the MMA, an Urdu acronym for United Council of Action, comprises Taliban supporters and other Muslim hardliners, but it has no plans to confront directly General Pervez Musharraf. The Pakistani President, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has reined in religious militants at Washington's request.But religious extremists may be on the rise.

MMA candidates are unlikely to win a majority outside the North-west Frontier Province, but their ballot papers will be a measure of the popular discontent with General Musharraf's perceived pandering to the West. The fundamentalists continue to be a thorn in his side.

Both of Pakistan's mainstream political parties lack the considerable clout they once wielded and are floundering without charismatic leaders. Benazir Bhutto's PPP (Pakistan People's Party) has fragmented into four factions, and the Muslim League that twice voted in the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has splintered into eight contentious groups. This allows Islamic fundamentalists a chance to gain seats, especially in the tradition-bound region bordering Afghanistan.

"Pakistan has always been a pimp for Western policy," grumbles a greybeard ahead of me in the food queue. Savoury saffron pilau is spread on a tarp like a vast yellow carpet, and this quickly becomes the crowd's focal point. But there's only time for a mouthful before the candidate's motorcade heads for the Grand Trunk Road. I catch up with Qazi Hussain Ahmed at party headquarters in Nowshera, a tidy garrison town where his anti-American followers quench their thirst with Coca-Cola.

"The MMA has the only nationally organised campaign and people have been very receptive," Mr Ahmed tells me. "The old leaders are aloof and in the grip of the feudals, and the present ruler of Pakistan is so ambitious he has no courage." For political expediency, rival sects have tried to set aside their religious bickering to give the MMA some cohesion. "We have been flexible," he says. "If our principles are respected, we can co-operate with anyone in Pakistan."

Courting new voters between 18 and 21 is a big priority, and the MMA manifesto promotes self-determination for Kashmir and building up the economy as prominently as its predictable condemnation of servility to the West. General Musharraf's election reforms are meant to bolster a democracy where kleptocracy once was institutionalised, but they will, in effect, limit who may stand for office.

By requiring a candidate to hold a university degree, only the elite 2 per cent of the population could pursue a political career, and very few women. "I can assure you there will be no leadership of loot and plunder," General Musharraf has promised the voters. "Better leadership will emerge. They may belong to the same [feudal] families, but if the next generation is educated and has better vision, they will run the country better."

By the time Sumbal, the prodigy in pink at the MMA rally, can speak her own mind, Pakistan may be ready to move beyond its feudal reflexes to become a recognisable democracy. Now, it marches to a military beat.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence