EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Pakistani militants of various stripes collectively won just under 10% of the vote in the July 2018 parliamentary elections. Some represented longstanding legal Islamist parties, others newly established groups or fronts for organizations that have been banned as terrorists by Pakistan and/or the United Nations and the United States.
The militants failed to secure a single seat in the national assembly but have maintained, if not increased, their ability to shape national debate, mainstream politics, and societal attitudes. Their ability to field candidates in almost all constituencies, and, in many cases, their performance as debutants enhanced their legitimacy.
The militants’ performance has fueled debate about the Pakistani military’s effort to expand its longstanding support for militants, which serves its regional and domestic goal of nudging them into mainstream politics. It also raises the question of who benefits most: mainstream politics or the militants. Political parties help to mainstream militants, but militants with deep societal roots and significant followings are frequently key to mainstream candidates’ electoral success.
Perceptions that the militants may stand to gain the most are enhanced by the fact that decades of successive military and civilian governments, aided and abetted by Saudi Arabia, have managed to deeply embed ultraconservative, intolerant, anti-pluralist, and supremacist strands of Sunni Islam in significant segments of Pakistani society.