Skip to main content Accessibility help

Secular Party Rule and Religious Violence in Pakistan



Does secular party incumbency affect religious violence? Existing theory is ambiguous. On the one hand, religiously motivated militants might target areas that vote secularists into office. On the other hand, secular party politicians, reliant on the support of violence-hit communities, may face powerful electoral incentives to quell attacks. Candidates bent on preventing bloodshed might also sort into such parties. To adjudicate these claims, we combine constituency-level election returns with event data on Islamist and sectarian violence in Pakistan (1988–2011). For identification, we compare districts where secular parties narrowly won or lost elections. We find that secularist rule causes a sizable reduction in local religious conflict. Additional analyses suggest that the result stems from electoral pressures to cater to core party supporters and not from politician selection. The effect is concentrated in regions with denser police presence, highlighting the importance of state capacity for suppressing religious disorder.


Corresponding author

Gareth Nellis is the Evidence in Governance and Politics Postdoctoral fellow, Institute of Governmental Studies, Moses Hall, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA (
Niloufer Siddiqui is a Postdoctoral Fellow, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany, State University of New York, 135 Western Avenue, Albany, NY 12222, USA (


Hide All

Our thanks to Rafael Ahlskog, Ahsan Butt, Chris Clary, Asad Liaqat, Steven Rosenzweig, Fredrik Sävje, Mike Weaver, Steven Wilkinson, anonymous reviewers, and participants at the 2017 Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, and the 2017 Midwest Political Science Association conference for helpful comments and advice.



Hide All
Ahmed, Khaled. 2011. Sectarian War: Pakistan’s Sunni-Shia Violence and Its Links to the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Akbar, Nafisa, and Ostermann, Susan L.. 2015. “Understanding, Defining, and Measuring State Capacity in India: Traditional, Modern, and Everything in Between.” Asian Survey 55 (5): 845–61.
Ashworth, Scott. 2012. “Electoral Accountability: Recent Theoretical and Empirical Work.” Annual Review of Political Science 15: 183201.
Banerjee, Abhijit, Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, Duflo, Esther, Keniston, Daniel, and Singh, Nina. 2012. “Can Institutions Be Reformed From Within? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment with the Rajasthan Police.” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 17912.
Beath, Andrew, Christia, Fotini, and Enikolopov, Ruben. 2013. “Winning Hearts and Minds through Development: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Afghanistan.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 6129.
Beber, Bernd, Roessler, Philip, and Scacco, Alexandra. 2014. “Intergroup Violence and Political Attitudes: Evidence from a Dividing Sudan.” The Journal of Politics 76 (3): 649–65.
Blair, Graeme, Fair, C. Christine, Malhotra, Neil, and Shapiro, Jacob N. 2013. “Poverty and Support for Militant Politics: Evidence from Pakistan.” American Journal of Political Science 57 (1): 3048.
Blakeslee, David. 2013. “Propaganda and Ethno-Religious Politics in Developing Countries: Evidence from India.” Working paper, Columbia University.
Blattman, Christopher, and Annan, Jeannie. 2016. “Can Employment Reduce Lawlessness and Rebellion? A Field Experiment with High-Risk Men in a Fragile State.” American Political Science Review 110 (1): 1.
Blattman, Christopher, and Miguel, Edward. 2010. “Civil War.” Journal of Economic Literature 48 (1): 357.
Brass, Paul R. 2003. The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Burgess, Robin, Jedwab, Remi, Miguel, Edward, Morjaria, Ameet et al. 2015. “The Value of Democracy: Evidence from Road Building in Kenya.” The American Economic Review 105 (6): 1817–51.
Butler, Daniel M., and Broockman, David E.. 2011. “Do Politicians Racially Discriminate Against Constituents? A Field Experiment on State Legislators.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (3): 463–77.
Callen, Michael, and Long, James D.. 2015. “Institutional Corruption and Election Fraud: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Afghanistan.” American Economic Review 105 (1): 354–81.
Cederman, Lars-Erik, Wimmer, Andreas, and Min, Brian. 2010. “Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel? New Data and Analysis.” World Politics 62 (01): 87119.
Chattopadhyay, Raghabendra, and Duflo, Esther. 2004. “Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Policy Experiment in India.” Econometrica 72 (5): 1409–43.
Clots-Figueras, Irma. 2011. “Women in Politics: Evidence from the Indian States.” Journal of Public Economics 95 (7): 664–90.
Clots-Figueras, Irma. 2012. “Are Female Leaders Good for Education?American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 4 (1): 212–44.
Collier, Paul, and Vicente, Pedro C.. 2012. “Violence, Bribery, and Fraud: The Political Economy of Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Public Choice 153 (1-2): 117–47.
Collier, Paul, and Vicente, Pedro C.. 2014. “Voters and Violence: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Nigeria.” The Economic Journal 124 (574): 327–55.
Comolli, Virginia. 2015. Boko Haram: Nigeria’s Islamist Insurgency. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Crost, Benjamin, Felter, Joseph, and Johnston, Patrick. 2014. “Aid Under Fire: Development Projects and Civil Conflict.” The American Economic Review 104 (6): 1833–56.
Dell, Melissa. 2015. “Trafficking Networks and the Mexican Drug War.” American Economic Review 105 (6): 1738–79.
Democracy International. 2008. U.S. Election Observation Mission to Pakistan: General Elections 2008. Bethesda, MD: Democracy International Press.
Dube, Oeindrila, and Naidu, Suresh. 2015. “Bases, Bullets, and Ballots: The Effect of US Military Aid on Political Conflict in Colombia.” The Journal of Politics 77 (1): 249–67.
Dunning, Thad. 2011. “Fighting and Voting: Violent Conflict and Electoral Politics.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55 (3): 327–39.
Dunning, Thad. 2012. Natural Experiments in the Social Sciences: A Design-Based Approach. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Duverger, Maurice. 1959. Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State. London: Methuen.
Ellman, Matthew, and Wantchekon, Leonard. 2000. “Electoral Competition Under the Threat of Political Unrest.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 499531.
Fair, C. Christine. 2014. Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fair, C. Christine. 2015. “Explaining Support for Sectarian Terrorism in Pakistan: Piety, Maslak and Sharia.” Religions 6: 1137–67.
Fair, C. Christine, and Jones, Seth G.. 2009. “Pakistan’s War Within.” Survival 51 (6): 161–88.
Fair, C. Christine, Malhotra, Neil, and Shapiro, Jacob N.. 2012. “Faith or Doctrine? Religion and Support for Political Violence in Pakistan.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (4): 688720.
Fearon, James D., Humphreys, Macartan, and Weinstein, Jeremy M.. 2015. “How Does Development Assistance Affect Collective Action Capacity? Results from a Field Experiment in Post-Conflict Liberia.” American Political Science Review 109 (03): 450– 69.
Fearon, James, and Laitin, David. 1996. “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation.” American Political Science Review 90 (4): 715–35.
Fearon, James, and Laitin, David. 2003. “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War.” American Political Science Review 97 (1): 7590.
Ferreira, Fernando, and Gyourko, Joseph. 2009. “Do Political Parties Matter? Evidence from U.S. Cities.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 124 (1): 399422.
Fisman, Raymond, Schulz, Florian, and Vig, Vikrant. 2014. “The Private Returns to Public Office.” Journal of Political Economy 122 (4): 806–62.
Franck, Raphael, and Rainer, Ilia. 2012. “Does the Leader’s Ethnicity Matter? Ethnic Favoritism, Education, and Health in Sub-Saharan Africa.” American Political Science Review 106 (02): 294325.
Gayer, Laurent. 2014. Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Grzymala-Busse, Anna. 2012. “Why Comparative Politics Should Take Religion (More) Seriously.” Annual Review of Political Science 15: 421–42.
Gurr, Ted R. 1970. Why Men Rebel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Haqqani, Husain. 2005. Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment.
Herbst, Jeffrey. 2014. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hicken, Allen. 2009. Building Party Systems in Developing Democracies. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan, or, The matter, forme, and power of a common wealth, ecclesiasticall and civil. London: Printed for Andrew Crooke.
Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Horowitz, Donald. 2001. The Deadly Ethnic Riot. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Institute for Economics and Peace. 2015. Global Terrorism Index 2015: Measuring and Understanding the Impact of Terrorism.
Ishiyama, John. 2009. “Do Ethnic Parties Promote Minority Ethnic Conflict?Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 15 (1): 5683.
Iyer, Sriya, and Shrivastava, Anand. 2015. “Religious Riots and Electoral Politics in India.” Cambridge Working Papers in Economics 1561.
Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2015. The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience. New Delhi: Random House India.
Jha, Saumitra. 2013. “Trade, Institutions, and Ethnic Tolerance: Evidence from South Asia.” American Political Science Review 107 (4): 806–32.
Jones, Philip Edward. 2003. The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 1987. “The Logic of Religious Violence.” The Journal of Strategic Studies 10 (4): 172–93.
Juergensmeyer, Mark. 2003. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press.
Kalin, Michael, and Siddiqui, Niloufer. Forthcoming. “National Identity, Religious Tolerance, and Group Conflict: Evidence from a Survey Experiment in Pakistan.” Conflict Management and Peace Science.
Kalyvas, Stathis. 2006. The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kalyvas, Stathis N., and Balcells, Laia. 2010. “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conflict.” American Political Science Review 104 (03): 415–29.
Khan, Sayeed Hasan, and Jacobsen, Kurt. 2008. “Pakistan after Benazir.” Economic and Political Weekly 43 (2): 10–2.
Khwaja, Asim Ijaz, and Mian, Atif. 2005. “Do Lenders Favor Politically Connected Firms? Rent Provision in an Emerging Financial Market.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 120 (4): 1371–411.
Laïdi, Zaki. 2008. EU Foreign Policy in a Globalized World: Normative Power and Social Preferences. London: Routledge.
Lee, David S. 2008. “Randomized Experiments from Non-random Selection in U.S. House Elections.” Journal of Econometrics 142 (2): 675–97.
Lee, David S., Moretti, Enrico, and Butler, Matthew J.. 2004. “Do Voters Affect or Elect Policies? Evidence from the US House.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 119 (3): 807–59.
LeVeaux, Christine, and Garand, James C.. 2003. “Race-Based Redistricting, Core Constituencies, and Legislative Responsiveness to Constituency Change.” Social Science Quarterly 84 (1): 3251.
Lieven, Anatol. 2011. Pakistan: A Hard Country. London: Public Affairs.
Lupu, Noam, and Peisakhin, Leonid. Forthcoming. “The Legacy of Political Violence Across Generations.” American Journal of Political Science.
Lyall, Jason. 2010. “Are Coethnics More Effective Counterinsurgents? Evidence from the Second Chechen War.” American Political Science Review 104 (01): 120.
Lyall, Jason, Blair, Graeme, and Imai, Kosuke. 2013. “Explaining Support for Combatants During Wartime: A Survey Experiment in Afghanistan.” American Political Science Review 107 (04): 679705.
Mainwaring, Scott, and Scully, Timothy. 1995. Building Democratic Institutions: Party Systems in Latin America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
McCrary, Justin. 2008. “Manipulation of the Running Variable in the Regression Discontinuity Design: a Density Test.” Journal of Econometrics 142 (2): 698714.
Meyersson, Erik. 2014. “Islamic Rule and the Empowerment of the Poor and Pious.” Econometrica 82 (1): 229–69.
Misra, Ashutosh. 2003. “Rise of Religious Parties in Pakistan: Causes and Prospects.” Strategic Analysis 27 (2): 186215.
Mufti, Mariam. 2011. ”Elite Recruitment and Regime Dynamics in Pakistan.” PhD thesis, Johns Hopkins University.
Naseemullah, Adnan. 2016. “The Contested Capacity of the State in the Indian Economy.” India Review 15 (4): 407–32.
Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. 1992. “Democracy and the Crisis of Governability in Pakistan.” Asian Survey 32 (6): 521–37.
Nellis, Gareth, Weaver, Michael, and Rosenzweig, Steven. 2016. “Do Parties Matter for Ethnic Violence? Evidence from India.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 11 (3): 249–77.
Norris, Pippa, and Inglehart, Ronald. 2011. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Nunn, Nathan, and Qian, Nancy. 2014. “US Food Aid and Civil Conflict.” The American Economic Review 104 (6): 1630–66.
Oldenburg, Philip. 2010. India, Pakistan, and Democracy: Solving the Puzzle of Divergent Paths. London: Routledge.
Paluck, Elizabeth Levy, and Green, Donald P.. 2009. “Deference, Dissent, and Dispute Resolution: An Experimental Intervention Using Mass Media to Change Norms and Behavior in Rwanda.” American Political Science Review 103 (4): 622.
Patil, Sanjay. 2008. “Feudal Forces: Reform Delayed (Moving from Force to Service in South Asian Policing).” New Delhi: Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
Paul, T. V. 2010. State Capacity and South Asia’s Perennial Insecurity Problem. In South Asia’s Weak States: Understanding the Regional Insecurity Predicament, ed. Paul, T.V.. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 327.
Petrocik, John R. 1996. “Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study.” American Journal of Political Science 40 (3): 825850.
Pettersson-Lidbom, Per. 2008. “Do Parties Matter for Economic Outcomes? A Regression-Discontinuity Approach.” Journal of the European Economic Association 6 (5): 1037–56.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. New York: Viking.
Powell, G. Bingham Jr., and Whitten, Guy D.. 1993. “A Cross-National Analysis of Economic Voting: Taking Account of the Political Context.” American Journal of Political Science 37 (2): 391414.
Rafiq, Arif. 2014. “Sunni Deobandi-Shii Sectarian Violence in Pakistan.” Middle East Institute Report.
Rehavi, M. Marit. 2007. “Sex and Politics: Do Female Legislators Affect State Spending?” Working Paper: University of Michigan.
Rieck, Andreas. 2016. The Shias of Pakistan: An Assertive and Beleaguered Minority. New York: Oxford University Press.
Samad, Yunas. 1996. Pakistan or Punjabistan: Crisis of National Identity. In Punjabi Identity: Continuity and Change, eds. Singh, G. and Talbot, I.. New Delhi: Manohar.
Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Selengut, Charles. 2017. Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Staniland, Paul. 2012. “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (2): 243–64.
Talbot, Ian. 2002. The Punjabization of Pakistan: Myth or Reality? In Pakistan: Nationalism Without a Nation, ed. Jaffrelot, Christophe. New Delhi: Zed Books.
Ullah, Haroon K. 2013. Vying for Allah’s Vote: Understanding Islamic Parties, Political Violence, and Extremism in Pakistan. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
USAID. 2015. Audit of USAID Pakistans Political Party Development Program. Technical report.
Wald, Kenneth D., Silverman, Adam L., and Fridy, Kevin S.. 2005. “Making Sense of Religion in Political Life.” Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 8: 121–43.
Weinstein, Jeremy. 2007. Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilder, Andrew. 1999. The Pakistani Voter: Electoral Politics and Voting Behaviour in the Punjab. Karachi: Oxford University Press.
Wilkinson, Steven I. 2004. Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India. New York: Cambridge University Press.
World Bank. 2011. World Development Report 2011: Conflict, Security, and Development. Washington D.C.: World Bank.
Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. 1998. “Sectarianism in Pakistan: The Radicalization of Shii and Sunni Identities.” Modern Asian Studies 32 (03): 689716.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Nellis and Siddiqui supplementary material 1
Online Appendix

 PDF (387 KB)
387 KB
Supplementary materials

Nellis and Siddiqui Dataset


Secular Party Rule and Religious Violence in Pakistan



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.