Before 1999, the religious minorities of Pakistan had the right to elect their political representative through a direct electoral process. The Musharraf regime in 2002 brought reforms and revised the electoral rules through which minorities were given the right to vote for general seat candidates from the majority of community members in their respective constituencies. However, for their own parliamentary representation, the indirect system of election was introduced.
The mainstream political parties of the country were given the right to send nominations to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) where proportionate minority membership was commissioned to be allocated to the mainstream political parties. Since then, minorities find these reforms undemocratic, stating that this system does go in consonance with the norms of democracy.
In this connection, Chairman Pakistan Minority Alliance Akmal Bhatti, while underlining the struggle of the minorities in the electoral sphere, said that in 1985 electoral reforms were brought during the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, adding that this system gave minorities the right to elect their representatives independently through secret balloting.
In this system, he added, minorities used to vote on the basis of faith, which alienated them from mainstream parties and triggered denominational barriers. He further said that despite some lacunas, this system allowed participation of the minorities in the national politics and democratic process, adding that minority voters somehow didn’t feel much political and social isolation in the system.
As regards challenges in the said system, he said that the minority candidates were under a huge financial burden while contesting the elections because a Member of Provincial Assembly (MPAs) had to campaign all over the province, while a Member of National Assemblies (MNAs) had to campaign in whole of the country. “Due to the vast constituencies allotted for the political campaigns, the candidates had to face financial challenges,” he said.
In this system, he said, it was difficult for the common man to contest and win the elections, adding that only the affluent and capitalists were the active participants in the country’s democratic process then.
Further, he informed that in 1985 reserved seats were allocated in proportion to the collective population of minorities from all four provinces, adding that ten seats were allocated in National Assembly to minorities then, out of which four were distributed among Hindus and Christians, one was given to the scheduled caste and one to the representatives of other small minority groups.
“The reserved seats for minorities were nine in Sindh, eight in Punjab, three in Balochistan, and NWFP (now KP) each in the provincial assemblies,” he said.
“In the past 37 years the population of minorities has increased in all constituencies, throughout the country, but the number of political representatives on account of reserved seats has remained the same. In 2022, the representation on the basis of the year 1985 population is implemented. Following the merger of FATA with KP only one seat has been added to the minority reserved seats of the province. The minority seats must be enhanced as per the current population statistics,” he maintained.
Indicating at the indirect election system for minorities, Former Secretary General FAFEN and Executive Director of PATTAN Sarwar Bari said that political parties hold the control of the minority candidates in the present electoral system and there is no contribution of the candidates, adding that the will of voters in the election is ignored.
In order to overcome the political disempowerment of minorities, he suggested, a multimember constituency election should be held in the future in the constituencies having the majority of minorities voters, adding that there are more than 40 constituencies in the country where minorities hold more than 50-60% voters, specifically in the areas of Sindh and interior Punjab. He recommended that two candidates, i.e. one from the minority community and the other from the majority must contest from the same constituency, and both minorities and majority voters must be eligible to cast their votes for both candidates. “This will not only end the political isolation of the minority candidates in the constituency but will also develop a feeling of relevance in the democratic party-base electoral process,” he added.
He also underlined that the number of general seats has increased twice in upper and lower houses, but there is no revision of the reserved seats of minorities. “The number of ten reserved seats must be enhanced to 20 for better political representation of the religious minorities, this will not only empower them politically but will also solve their socio-economic issues,” he added.
Shahzad Imran Sahotra who was an Independent Christian candidate for National Assembly and has contested the general seat against eight Muslim candidates in NA-62 Rawalpindi in the 2018 general elections, said that in London a Muslim man can be elected as Mayor, but in Pakistan, a non-Muslim candidate cannot win and get a vote from Muslim voter, due to social discrimination on the basis of religion.
Responding to a query as to why he didn’t contest the reserved seat of minorities, he said that he felt humiliated to be part of the current electoral system for minorities. He underlined that mainstream parties have small minority wings and one has to lobby and bargain for the ticket within that minority wing which lessens the worth of a candidate. “Focus in such system shifts onto the acquirement of the ticket and not on community issues and development,” he added.
In addition, he pressed that the government should introduce electoral reforms ahead of the coming general elections by marking the minority’s majority constituencies and conducting elections for minorities separately on a constituency-wise basis. Shahzad secured the fourth position among the eight candidates in NA 62 and bagged 1975 votes.
In the general elections of 2018, a Hindu candidate, Mahesh Mallani, won a National Assembly seat from Tharparkar (NA-222) which has a large population of Hindu voters but Muslim voters are still in a thumping majority over there. Mallani received more than 100,000 votes and among his voters, the majority voters were Muslims. Similarly, Gyan Chand Israni bagged around 35,000 votes in Jamshoro district (PS-81), the majority of the votes cast for him were also from the Muslim voters. The Jamshoro district has only 3.8 percent of the Hindu population.
Further, Hari Ram won from PS-47, a constituency from the Mirpur Khas. Again, it is a city having a clear majority of Muslim voters. All of these instances show that Muslim voters do vote for the minority candidate even if they contest a general seat. This point invokes an argument, contradictory to the experience of Shahzad Imran Sohatra (Christian Independent Candidate on a general seat in Rawalpindi) who claims that Muslim voters do not vote for the minority candidates, who are contesting the elections from the general seats as they consider their religion superior to that of minorities.
All these seats won by the candidates of religious minorities were contested on the tickets of a mainstream political party i.e. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and one cannot deny the fact that other than the support of Muslim voters, the major element in these constituencies had large base of mainstream party (PPP) voters, which had voted for these candidates, as per the directives of the party. PPP is a secular party that has always supported minorities and their voters are also sensitized in that particular manner.
But, keeping the ground realities in view the majority of the political parties do not give general seat tickets to candidates from minorities because of two reasons. The primary reason is that minorities have fewer voters in constituencies as compared to the majority and the second reason is the conservative and biased nature of the majority towards the minorities. Moreover, the religio-political parties whose majority vote bank lies in the religious lot in the country would also think twice before giving ticket of general seat to a minority candidate by surpassing a Muslim candidate.
Chairman Rawadari Tehreek Samson Salamat, emphasizing on the restoration of the independent electoral system for minorities, said that as a citizen of Pakistan religious minorities should be given the right to vote and elect their representatives. He termed the current selection system for minorities ‘undemocratic’ for minorities and the a cause of deprivation from exercising their democratic rights. Further, he believed that if a voter votes on the basis of faith only within the minority community, then it will widen the gap between the minority and the majority community.
Azam Miraj, Chairman Tehreek-i-Shanakhaat, pointed out the increasing political alienation of religious minorities in the current system. Meraj urged the authorities and Election Commission Pakistan (ECP) to give religious minorities the right to exercise a dual vote in the general elections. Through the provision of double votes, the minority voters can cast their vote for both candidates i.e. Muslim and non-Muslim candidates in a single constituency. A dual vote system will restore the democratic rights of minorities and will maximize their relevance to the country’s politics as an important stakeholder.
Kashif Nawab is a freelance journalist; writes for The News on Sunday, Pakistan Today, Agenzia FIDES, Italy, News Lens, the Minority View, UK. And Sabaat He mainly writes articles on the issues og human rights and democracy, women and children, and the current situation of religious minorities in Pakistan.