Pakistan, a major recipient of U.S. aid, purports to be an electoral democracy but human rights groups say it falls far short.
With minorities facing tough challenges, including notorious blasphemy laws, community leaders say the need for influential and committed representatives in government is an ongoing and urgent one.
For much of Pakistan’s history, a limited number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies were reserved for each minority community, and members of those communities voted for representatives to fill those seats. That system was generally unpopular with minorities, including Christians and Hindus, whose communities felt marginalized.
But what followed, they say, turned out to be even worse. A “reform” introduced in 2002 by former military ruler-turned-president Pervez Musharraf stopped minorities voting separately and directly for their own representatives.
A 342-member National Assembly was made up of 272 directly-elected seats – filled by the major political parties, all Muslim – with another 60 seats are reserved for women and the remaining 10 for non-Muslims.
The 10 minority seats are filled by appointees of major political parties, in proportion to the size of vote they attract.
Non-Muslims have virtually no say in the selection of the ten individuals who supposedly represent them at a national level, and claim that they tend to follow the line of their party patrons rather than the minorities whose interests they are meant to promote.
At a recent meeting in Faisalabad politicians, religious leaders, civil society representatives and others discussed the issue and called on the government to replace the current system with a “dual” one that would enable them to choose minorities representatives directly, but without losing the right to vote for national party representatives in their constituencies too.
“In the [former] separate electoral system we voted only for our co-religionists and that alienated us from the mainstream,” explained Human Rights Focus Pakistan president Naveed Walter, one of the organizers.
“Now we can only vote for a Muslim and that is making communities disinterested in politics.”
Walter said just because a few members of a minority community are given seats in parliament that does not mean that minority has gained its political rights.
George Clement, a former national lawmaker, said the problem was a constitutional one, as the current national constitution did not represent the ideology of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who championed religious equality, “but represents the ideology of Islam.”
Khalil Tahir Sindhu, a human rights activist and politician in Punjab province, said the current system is not working, and that lawmakers often deride the holders of the seats reserved for minorities as “charity members.”
Pakistan is the world’s second-largest Islamic country, and Muslims make up around 96 percent of the population.
Parties taking part in the May elections include the current ruling Pakistan People’s Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan Muslim League (N), led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), and the Islamist, pro-Taliban Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition.