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
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
football This was Kane’s night, even if he played just a small part of it
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
News
Threlfall says: 'I am a guardian of the reality keys. I think I drive directors nuts'
people
Voices
voices The group has just unveiled a billion dollar plan to help nurse the British countryside back to health
News
The Westgate, a gay pub in the centre of Gloucester which played host to drag queens, has closed
news
  • 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: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss