ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Five years after riding to power in Pakistan's critical border provinces on a wave of anti-U.S. sentiment, Islamist parties are divided and in disarray ahead of crucial elections scheduled for next month.
Their alliance is on the cusp of a bad-tempered breakup that could reduce their influence - and help the next government tackle rising Islamic extremism.
Leaders of religious parties still can draw on widespread resentment of President Pervez Musharraf's reliance on force to counter extremists linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But some observers expect them to lose their grip along the Afghan frontier, which could make it easier for the next federal government to deliver promised development aid and deploy troops.
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which groups six religious parties, is being pulled apart by a row between its two main partners over how best to confront Musharraf and whether to boycott the Jan. 8 voting.
Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan's oldest Islamist party, says that taking part in the vote would legitimize Musharraf's breach of the constitution when he declared emergency rule Nov. 3.
Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, with links to hard-line
, or religious schools, in the northwest, wants to participate rather than let rival parties take control of its strongholds. "We believe boycotting the polls would lead society toward anarchy and all hopes for restoration of democracy will be dashed," said its spokesman, Mufti Abrar Ahmed.
The rival factions are at odds even over which party can use a book as its election symbol - a draw for largely illiterate voters who associate it with the Koran.
The religious parties shot to prominence after the 1999 coup that brought Musharraf to power and marginalized mainstream political leaders. With anti-U.S. feelings at a boiling point after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Islamist parties formed the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal and won 59 of the 342 seats in the lower house of parliament in 2002.
That made them a key player in the parliament. Musharraf made concessions in the direction of Islamic law to secure their help in legalizing his coup. The Islamist parties also won the right to lead the government in one border province and fill half the cabinet posts in the other.
In North West Frontier Province, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal launched a drive to extend Islamic law. Activists tore down billboards they considered obscene, and music was banned from public buses.
The Islamist parties say Pakistani intelligence is playing up the specter of al-Qaeda to persuade the United States to keep sending billions of dollars to Pakistan.
But with former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - leaders of the main secular opposition parties - back in the political limelight, religious groups are in a quandary about how to shore up their influence.
Even if a split in the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition is avoided, the Islamists could fare badly at the polls because of their lackluster performance in provincial administration. Mehdi Hasan, a political analyst, expects the religious parties to lose about half the seats they won in 2002.