The Myth of ‘Free and Fair’ Elections in Pakistan

Source: George Town Journal of International Affairs

By Amjad Mahmood Khan

Imagine if members of the Mormon or Catholic communities were forced to declare that they were “non-Christian” in order to cast a ballot in the 2012 U.S. elections.  In a few months, Pakistanis will take to the polls to elect a new government, and for the second consecutive election cycle, millions of Muslims belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community —an intensely persecuted religious community branded “non-Muslim” by constitutional amendment—will sit home without the ability to freely exercise their right to vote.  Pakistan’s little known voter apartheid system is not only a human rights debacle but also a self-inflicted open wound that all Pakistanis should acknowledge and treat.

The equal right to vote is part of Pakistan’s DNA. Addressing Pakistan’s First Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, commented: “Every [Pakistani], no matter what his colour, caste or creed, is first, second or last a citizen of the State with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”  Jinnah would later caution Pakistanis about the need “to stand guard over the development and maintenance of democracy.”  In the face of Jinnah’s timeless pronouncements, however, Pakistan’s electoral system has devolved into a façade that conceals inequity and threatens the integrity of Pakistan’s democracy.

For decades, as part of a joint electorate system, all Pakistani citizens had an equal vote irrespective of their faith.   A Christian, Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim (regardless of what kind of Muslim) shared the same political franchise and same opportunity to elect political candidates for office.  But in 1985, spurred on by religious hardliners who could not stomach sharing the right to vote with non-Muslims or minorities, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq ordered a split of the joint electorate and the creation of “non-Muslim” electoral rolls where non-Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims (who were declared “non-Muslims” in 1974) could only vote for 5% of National Assembly seats allocated for them.  This executive decree effectively disenfranchised non-Muslims who did not want to be segregated from mainstream society.  For Ahmadi Muslims, in particular, the split of the joint electorate was especially pernicious because they were now forced to disavow their Muslim identity against their conscience in order to vote.  Not surprisingly, after 1985, Ahmadi Muslims sat out national, state and local elections.

In 2002, under rightful pressure from the international community, President Musharraf reversed his predecessor’s decree and reinstated Pakistan’s original joint electorate.  Non-Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims lauded his executive decree as a positive step towards the restoration of Jinnah’s democratic ideals.   In advance of elections in April 2002, all Pakistanis were able to register to vote using a form that did not require the voter to mention his religion.  But within only four months, in a brazen attempt to appease religious hardliners who were upset at the restoration of the joint electorate, President Musharraf amended his presidential decree to apply only to non-Muslims but not Ahmadi Muslims (under the amendment, their “status remain[ed] unchanged” and they were subject to inclusion on a “supplementary list”).  In this perverse arrangement, he effectively included all Pakistani citizens except for Ahmadi Muslims as part of the joint electorate.

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Categories: Asia, Pakistan

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