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Khadim Hussain Rizvi, leader of the Tehrik-e-Labaik political party speaks with a Reuters correspondent at the party headquarters in Lahore, Pakistan September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza(reuters_tickers)
By Asif Shahzad
LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - The head of a new Pakistani Islamist party that lionizes the killer of a provincial governor said it would take its rallying cry of "death to blasphemers" to next year's general election, after its surprisingly strong showing in a recent vote.
The Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan party, which won more than 7,000 votes at a weekend by-election, was born out of a protest movement supporting Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab province who gunned down his boss in 2011 over his call to reform strict blasphemy laws.
Supporters of Tehreek-e-Labaik waved photos of Qadri, who became an icon for Muslim hardliners after his execution last year, at campaign rallies in the eastern city of Lahore, where it won 6 percent of the vote in a contest for the seat vacated by ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
"He is a hero," party leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi said when asked about Qadri, adding that after its third-place finish in Sunday's by-election it would focus on next year's poll. "Our preparation starts from today. We will contest bravely."
While the party has almost no chance of gaining power next year, it is part of a new crop of political movements that espouse stricter Islamic rule as a remedy to corruption accusations and squabbling among Pakistan's three main parties.
A stronger showing for Islamists could give them more influence after the election, expected to be hard-fought after the Supreme Court barred Sharif from holding office.
In an interview with Reuters, Rizvi outlined his vision of governance according the Barelvi branch of Islam, of which he is a prominent cleric.
Frequently citing Koranic verses and Pakistani history, he said his party could solve corruption problems "in a day" through stricter adherence to sharia, or Islamic law.
"Sharia will have to be enforced. No one should be worried about it," he said, sitting in the upper room of a Lahore mosque surrounded by followers, many who had adopted Qadri's signature look of long hair and kohl-lined eyes.
He acknowledged his vision would mean some changes to daily life, giving the example of barring women from working as airline flight attendants.
DEATH TO BLASPHEMERS
In its party platform, Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan calls for free education, free healthcare and social justice.
But it is best known for its public and passionate support for Mumtaz Qadri - campaign rallies featured posters with Qadri's photo - and its insistence that Muslim-majority Pakistan's blasphemy laws should remain among the world's harshest.
Dozens of people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row and at least 65 Pakistanis have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies.
One of the highest-profile killings was of Punjab Governor Taseer, who had called for the laws to be re-examined after a minority Christian woman was sentenced to death for blasphemy.
After his arrest over the killing, bodyguard Qadri drew a slew of admirers among Islamists who showered him with rose petal at court hearings. Tens of thousands thronged his funeral last year to condemn Sharif's government for his hanging.
Tehreek-e-Labaik spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi said the party started out as The Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri, but changed its name and entered politics after his execution.
Asked about Qadri's role as an inspiration to the party, leader Rizvi said: "He is a hero until doomsday. He is a hero beyond doomsday."
Asked if any Muslim has the obligation to kill a blasphemer, Rizvi said: "No ... there is a law. Hand him over to that."
But Qadri, he added, was justified because Pakistani police had failed to charge Taseer with blasphemy for criticising the law.
VOTES FOR ISLAMISTS
Tehreek-e-Labaik surprised many by its relatively strong showing in the Lahore by-election to fill the parliamentary seat left vacant when the Supreme Court ousted Sharif over unreported income, in a case initiated by opposition figure Imran Khan.
The seat was won, as expected, by Sharif's wife, Kulsoom, but the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party's share of the vote in the constituency was cut to 49.3 percent from 61 percent in a 2013 election.
Khan, a former cricket star, saw his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party increase its share to 37.6 percent from 35 percent in the last vote.
But much of the PML-N's margin loss came from votes cast for candidates of new Islamist parties.
In addition to Tehreek-e-Labaik, a newly declared party linked to Hafiz Saeed, named by the United States and India as the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, won about 5 percent of the Lahore vote.
Religious parties have never gained more than a few seats in Pakistan's parliament because they tend to appeal to one particular sect or a single issue, such as blasphemy.
Still, a surge of support for the ultra-religious parties could drain away votes from mainstream groups and potentially give Islamists leverage in policy-making.
Tehreek-e-Labaik's Rizvi said his only goal was to see a stricter vision of Islam enshrined in the law of the land.
"We want to bring the religion of Islam to the throne," he said.
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Alex Richardson)