Political voice of minorities still stifled in Pakistan

February 20th, 2008 - 9:06 am ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Pervez Musharraf
By Devirupa Mitra
Islamabad, Feb 20 (IANS) In Muslim majority Pakistan, people of other faiths have long wanted equal say in the affairs of state. Although a record number of 12 non-Muslims contested this year for parliament, minority leaders say that discriminatory electoral process still stifles their political voice. Minorities, mostly Christians and Hindus, constitute just three percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people. Under the electoral system, they are represented through candidates nominated by parties to reserved seats in the National Assembly and provincial assemblies. Non-Muslims cannot vote for Muslim nominees.

Two days before the Monday general elections, Pakistani Christian leader and former federal minister Julius Salik stacked 10 plastic chairs in a metal cage and sat there to express his disgust with the process of choosing minority representatives through selection.

“Why can’t we go for direct election, not just selection?” Salik, a Nobel peace prize nominee, asked IANS.

Under the electoral system established by then president Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, minorities could only vote for candidates of their own religion in the reserved seats of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies.

This was abolished in 1999. Two years later, President Pervez Musharraf introduced the current system, under which 60 seats for women and 10 seats for non-Muslins are reserved in the 272-member National Assembly.

Similarly, 128 seats for women and 23 seats non-Muslims are reserved in the provincial assemblies of Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The nominations for those seats are forwarded to the Election Commission. After the results for the general seats are declared, the parties are allotted the reserved seats in proportion to their strength in the legislative body.

At the same time, women and non-Muslims can stand for elections from general seats as well but non-Muslims still cannot vote for Muslim candidates. In 2002, no non-Muslim candidate contested from any general seats.

On Monday, 12 politicians from the minority communities stood for election to the National Assembly and six to the provincial assemblies. However, most contested as independents and none of them managed to win.

Peter Jacob, secretary to the Pakistan Catholic Church’s Lahore-based National Commission for Justice and Peace, told IANS that it was a positive development that the number of non-Muslim candidates has gone up though they didn’t win.

The candidates included a Christian woman, an independent who fought for two seats from two constituencies, including Islamabad. The only party nominee was Mahesh Mullani of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) from Tharkparker, Sindh.

A Sikh woman also reportedly stood for election from Nankana, the birthplace of Sikhism founder Guru Nanak.

Jacob admits that there was still great reluctance among minority communities to actively participate in politics.

“There have been prominent minority members in judiciary, sports and other fields, but they are not ready to enter the political arena due to the quality of politics here,” he said.

According to Jacob, there had been pressure on parties to nominate candidates from seats in Punjab and Sindh, where non-Muslims live in large numbers.

“In Lahore itself, non-Muslims - mainly Christians - had over 100,000 votes. In Sialkot and Gujranwala, there are almost 80,000.”

Yet political parties opted for conventional, stronger candidates.

“I am not surprised. This was going to be a very tough election, for which you need a lot of money and muscle power,” he said.

Non-Muslims generally are economically weaker than Muslims though there are some prosperous Pakistani Hindu merchants in Sindh and Balochistan.

M.P. Bhandara, a Zoroastrian businessman and member of the National Assembly, said it was “extremely difficult” for non-Muslims to wade through mainstream Pakistani politics.

“The politics here is dominated by ‘biradari’ (clan). It is easier for non-Muslims to come through reserved seats on a party platform,” Bhandara told IANS.

While he admitted it was not a “perfect system”, Bhandara himself is an advocate of proportional representation.

“The proportional representation system is more equitable and has been adopted in other countries like Germany, Sweden and Malaysia,” said Bhandara.

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