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'Talibanization' fears in Pakistan

Activists blocked a co-ed road race last week, as religious parties geared up for local elections in July.

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More than five years since President Pervez Musharraf's coup, religious extremists are moving to the forefront in challenging Pakistan's political order.

Last week, hundreds of extremist demonstrators armed with bamboo sticks blocked a 10K road race near the finish line to protest the participation of women runners. A gun battle with police ensued, leaving several people wounded.

In a surprise to many here, the incident took place not in the conservative tribal areas, but in the country's Punjab heartland. In reaction, protesters picketed Parliament Monday, calling on the government to "save the society from Talibanization."

Through strikes, protests, and the passage of strict local ordinances, Pakistan's religious parties have grown more brazen in their challenge to the secularization central to President Musharraf's rule. Political analysts are concerned that the sidelining of mainstream parties under may be aiding the radicals in the run-up to local elections in July.

"There is a perception among the think tanks in Washington and Pakistan that both the main opposition parties should be given some room, as their absence would strengthen politically the extremist parties," says Ayesha Haroon, editor of Pakistan's The Nation newspaper. "We may see a more radical path if democratic outlets are not relaxed."

Pakistan's two previous prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, live in exile. But in a move widely seen as a positive step toward restoring democracy, Ms. Bhutto's husband was recently released from prison and plans to run her party's affairs in Pakistan.

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