As part of its commitment of strengthening democracy in Pakistan, Church World Service-Pakistan/Afghanistan (CWS-P/A) recently published, Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Elections. Through history, discussion with community leaders, and a statistical assessment of the present electoral significance of minorities, the research provides a basis for transforming how religious minorities are viewed in Pakistan as a target voter group and aims at strengthening their electoral participation. Of the estimated 80.1 million registered voters, 3.62% are non-Muslims. While the figure may seem insignificant, the close margins by which recent elections were won tell a very different story. The 2002 elections were won by less than 17,000 votes while the 2008 were won by less than 27,000. The highest concentration and, thus, the areas where impact from voting could be highest and in descending order are Sindh, the Federal Capital, and Punjab. Therefore, the benefit to political parties that address religious minorities concerns and cater their campaigning toward the minorities’ interests may be an electoral win that would otherwise not be.
While there are vast social and political factors that will affect the electoral votes of the majority and minority, it is significant to note this power of the religious minority vote because the general public and the political parties are for the most unaware of it. However, a newly formed National Lobby Delegation (NLD) aims to change the way political parties approach the religious minority voters by bringing forward the issues and the fact that minorities have the power to swing votes in some key constituencies. Over the course of several weeks, the NLD met with thirteen politicians from eleven political parties to make recommendations on how to make electorates work for non-Muslims in Pakistan. The aforementioned research provided tangible support for the NLD’s message as one member praises, “This is the first time we have strong documents; I really appreciate these documents.” Unanimously, the politicians agreed to bring the recommendations to their parties. While all of the politicians agreed that constitutional reform is required to remove barriers faced by religious minorities’ electoral participation, the parties’ stance on issues varied. Leading national and local newspapers’ coverage of the meetings further helped to raise awareness of the NLD and its aim to advocate for religious minorities’ rights and roles in the electoral process. The NLD will continue to follow-up with the parties to reinforce the initiated dialogue so that some impact may be seen in their campaigning over the next several months before the expected elections in March 2013.
The NLD, which is a group of fourteen individuals including political, youth, academic, activists, journalists, and development leaders from the Christian, Hindu, and Sikh communities, recognizes that awareness is a fundamental step. George Clement, a former parliamentarian and NLD member, shares, “We aim to bring home to various parties that minorities have a very extensive role to play in elections. It is not meaningless and could swing the vote to the candidate who addresses the concerns of minorities.” This equates to 23 National Assembly seats that can be swung, and in Sindh alone, 70 seats or 25% of the Sindh Assembly can be affected by the minority vote. “The contribution of the minority is not being tapped,” adds Romana Bashir, a development worker and member of the NLD. She further comments, “Non-Muslims should be mainstreamed in the electoral process.”
Religious minorities from different parts of Pakistan experience different challenges with respect to the electoral process including voting. A contemporary issue raised by Kalyan Singh Kalyan, a professor and NLD member from the Sikh community, indicates how clearly reform is needed. “Hindus, Christians, and Sikhs from FATA and some parts of KPK are migrating these days. When they migrate, they enquire about where to cast their vote, but they are told you have to go back and vote from where you came.” For many, the security, economic, or social reasons for their migration inhibit them from returning to their places of origin. Kalyan further mentions, “Women mostly don’t have an NIC (National Identity Card) so they cannot vote.”
As M. Prakash, a lawyer, intellectual and NLD member, expresses, “No one denies the legitimacy of problems, not in principle.” Awareness at the grass roots level and the national level is the beginning, but the efforts required to overcome the issues faced by religious minorities in Pakistan’s electoral process are complicated. A complete overhaul in the approaches and thinking of the political parties and the minority communities themselves is needed. This must be followed by party and constitutional reforms that are supported by changed mindsets toward the social, economic, and political factors that define today’s perceived role of religious minorities in the electoral process. Progress, however, can be positively supported through continued research, advocacy, and grass roots level initiatives that work toward finding the right solutions to ensuring all eligible voters have informed, free, and fair access to this fundamental, democratic right.