‘The mullahs did nothing for us’

Fed up both with Pakistan’s military-led government and with the mainstream, secular opposition, Hussein decided that religious leaders should be given a chance to improve living conditions in this sprawling frontier city.

But five years after support from people like Hussein propelled the Islamic parties to power in the provincial government — and to their strongest-ever showing nationally — the 36-year-old shopkeeper is rethinking his choice.

“You can see the sanitation system here,” Hussein said, pointing with disgust to a ditch in front of his shop where a stream of greenish-brown sludge trickled by. “People were asking for clean water, and they didn’t get it. We were very hopeful. But the mullahs did nothing for us.”

Hussein’s disenchantment is just one reason why, with Pakistan on the eve of fresh parliamentary elections, the religious parties are struggling to appeal to voters.

On the surface, at least, they have many things going for them: Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, is deeply unpopular. So, too, are his backers in Washington. The leading opposition politicians have had their opportunities before, and failed. Overall, frustration in Pakistan is running high.

And yet the Islamic parties seem poorly positioned to benefit from that frustration. Beset by bitter internal divisions, they have failed to come up with a unified campaign strategy. Their candidates, meanwhile, have to answer for a dubious record in governing North-West Frontier Province, their traditional base of support. And out on the stump, they are finding that anti-American sentiments are not quite as raw as they once were.

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