KHALID WALID, Pakistan -- Dust swirled as the jeep, heralded by a convoy of motorcycle riders and guarded by gunmen in paramilitary-style uniforms, pulled up outside the towering tomb of an ancient Muslim saint.
Out stepped Maulana Abdul Khaliq Rehmani, a burly cleric with a notorious, banned Sunni Muslim group. Thanks to a deft name change by his group, he was now a candidate in Pakistan's general election, scheduled for Saturday.
Supporters mobbed Mr. Rehmani as he pushed into a small mosque in a rural district of Punjab Province, where a crowd had gathered in a courtyard. The warm-up speaker played on some typical populist tropes. "Islamabad is a colony of America," he shouted. "Thousands of their agents are in the capital, and they are destabilizing Pakistan."
But Mr. Rehmani preferred to paint his campaign as a rural class struggle. "Feudalism has paralyzed Pakistan," he said, his voice rising as the audience -- farmers with weather-beaten faces, many fresh from toiling in the fields -- listened raptly. "By the will of God, every poor person in this district will vote for us!"
As election fever grips Pakistan this week, Sunni extremist groups are making a bold venture into the democratic process, offering a political face to a movement that, at its militant end, has carried out attacks on minority Shiites that have resulted in hundreds of deaths this year.
Mr. Rehmani's group, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, is fielding 130 candidates across Pakistan in this election. Few are expected to win seats in the Parliament, which is dominated by more moderate parties. But experts say they are flexing their political muscle at the very time when Pakistan urgently needs to push back against extremism.
Relentless Taliban attacks on secular parties in recent weeks have tilted the field in favor of conservative parties, while the election authorities have been ambiguous. Some candidates were disqualified for having forged their university degrees, or for having an anti-Pakistani "ideology." But candidates with nakedly sectarian groups have been allowed to participate freely.
"These elections are critical," said Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst and the author of several reports on militancy in southern Punjab. "General Musharraf and his military started accommodating these groups. Now we see them trying to enter the political mainstream."
Mr. Rehmani was speaking at a rally in Khanewal, a district of lush fields and poor farmers between the city of Multan and the Indus River. His group, once known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, is the country's main anti-Shiite group and was banned as a terrorist organization by Pervez Musharraf, then the president, in 2002.
Sipah is widely viewed as the ideological center of sectarian thinking in Pakistan; its most notorious offshoot is Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the militant group responsible for much of the sectarian bloodshed this year: roadside executions, drive-by shootings and two major suicide attacks in the western city of Quetta that killed almost 200 people earlier this year.
But relatively little sectarian violence touches Sipah's political heartland in southern Punjab, where such groups drive deep roots in conservative rural communities by exploiting religious sentiment, profound social inequality and -- in some cases -- the support of mainstream politicians eager to capture their votes.
In Khanewal, for instance, Mr. Rehmani is estimated to control 12,000 to 20,000 votes, not enough to win a seat, but sufficient to swing the vote in the event of a tight race. At the last election in 2008, his group supported Raza Hayat Hiraj, a candidate for General Musharraf's party who went on to win the seat in Parliament. This time, however, the group has fielded its own candidate, Mr. Rehmani.
Mr. Hiraj has been rejected by that group, and finds himself under political attack locally. He has also had a change of heart about Sipah. "They are very strong fanatics," he said in an interview, saying that the group had a "different mind-set" when he supported them -- under pressure from his own party.
"I was told to go into an alliance with them," he said. "These people don't even consider Shiites to be like human beings. Their first philosophy is to kill a Shiite."
A similar dynamic exists in other pockets of Punjab where extremists enjoy a foothold: politicians, even those who profess not to share the extremists' values, are happy to embrace their votes. All parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-N, which is tipped to do well in this election, have been guilty.
The phenomenon helps explain how sectarian groups can carve out the space to operate, said Ms. Siddiqa, the analyst. "There is an argument that if you engage these groups politically, they might turn into Pakistan's version of Sinn Fein or Hezbollah," she said, referring to the political wings of militant movements in Ireland and Lebanon. "That is a very dangerous proposition."
Other factors play a part, too. Although sectarianism has been a problem in Pakistan since the country's birth in 1947, it turned militant in the 1980s when the military dictator, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, promoted Sunni extremist groups to counter Iranian influence after the 1979 revolution in that country, which created a Shiite theocracy.
Sectarian recruiters found rich terrain in the fields of Punjab, where poor Sunni farmers felt exploited by wealthy Shiite landowners who lorded over their tenants in a modern-day feudalism. Some of the same factors are still at play today.
"These people are slaves to the feudal lords," Mr. Rehmani said after the rally, sitting on a rope bed in a field outside the mosque.
Indeed, one of his opponents is a Shiite landlord: Fakhar Imam, a member of a large and politically influential family. Mr. Imam is a former speaker of Parliament while his wife, Abida Hussain, is a former ambassador to the United States. In 1991, his brother was shot and wounded in a sectarian attack.
In an interview after a rally in Kabirwala, the main town of Khanewal District, Mr. Imam played down the importance of sectarianism as a political factor. "People are more concerned with gas, jobs and electricity," he said, speaking by torchlight after the city power went off.
Still, there is little doubt that sectarian politics are the seedbed of more violent actions. Militants from Kabirwala took part in a high-profile attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009 that killed eight people. And the founder of Sipah-e-Sahaba, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, was educated in a madrasa just a few hundred yards from Mr. Imam's rally.
The head of the madrasa, Maulana Irshad Ahmed, bristled at any suggestion that the institution had a connection with terrorism. Instead he offered juice and samosas to a visiting Shiite journalist, and offered a tour of the complex, which belongs to the conservative Deobandi sect and houses 2,000 students.
In the corridors of a new, three-story building, filled with dormitory rooms that doubled as classrooms, bearded teenagers crowded around teachers, listening to religious instruction. A similar-size mosque was under construction next door; Mr. Ahmed said he hoped the complex would soon have 4,000 students.
After the rally in Khalid Walid village, Mr. Rehmani rose to leave, trailed by his armed guards. He apologized: he was rushing to another campaign rally.
As his convoy disappeared into the dusk, it passed under the village's dominant feature: the red-brick tomb of Hazrat Khalid Walid, a 13th century saint from the moderate Sufi strain of Islam, who was famed for his sense of tolerance.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.