As Pakistan heads into general elections this Thursday, February 8, Pakistani Christians appear dejected over the electoral system for their parliamentary representation.
Challenged by a plethora of issues ranging from a dwindling population and undercounting to persecution at the hands of blasphemy laws, forced conversions and marriages, and more, Christians feel that the current system of appointing their representatives to the national and provincial assemblies does not give them any meaningful democratic representation.
It’s an uphill struggle for Christians, who comprise only 1.59 percent of Pakistan’s 241.5 million population, according to the 2023 National Population Census.
According to the Election Commission of Pakistan's 2022 figures, there are 3.63 million registered minority voters of which 1.64 million are Christian. A majority of Christian voters, over 1 million, are settled in Punjab province followed by an estimated 200,000 in Sindh province while the remaining are spread across the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Although these numbers can determine the defeat and victory of candidates in the general elections, Christians are unable to reap the rewards of being crucial voters, especially in Punjab province.
Pakistan’s complicated electoral system allots minorities and women a small number of “reserved” seats in the national and four provincial legislatures, based on their political parties’ gains at the polls. Under Article 51(4) of Pakistan’s Constitution, 10 seats are reserved for non-Muslims in the National Assembly and 24 seats in the four provincial assemblies – nine in Sindh, eight in Punjab, four in KP and three in Balochistan – under Article 106. In addition, they are allocated four seats in the Senate.
The reserved seats are distributed proportionally among the political parties which win a minimum of 5 percent of the seats in the assemblies. So, it is a case of Muslim parties selecting the minority representation according to their whims and fancies — not a case of minority communities electing their representatives.
In the 76-year history of Pakistan, three electoral systems have been tested for non-Muslim voters. Ironically, each time the demand for electoral reforms came at the behest of minorities.
Christians divided over electoral system
“The selection system in political parties practically takes away the democratic powers and rights from the minority voters to elect their parliamentarians,” said Rwadari Tehreek (Movement for Equality) Chairman Samson Salamat.
Salamat said the present electoral system neglects Christians politically and socially. The Christian representatives handpicked by leading Muslim political parties are unable to stand up for and protect the interests of the community, he added.
“Government advertisements continue to reserve sweeper jobs only for Christians. Despite completing several terms, Christian lawmakers do not address such issues or do anything to promote our youth in society and politics. Similarly, these representatives have failed to raise their voices against issues like misuse of the blasphemy laws, forced conversions, etc.” he added.
Denying that he was a proponent of the separate electoral system, Salamat said that the joint electoral system should continue to maintain the political interaction of the voters belonging to different faiths and religions.
“However, the procedure to fill up the seats for minorities should be reformed and the government, political parties and other stakeholders should work on a scheme which empowers and involves the minority voters to elect their representatives in the national and provincial assemblies, and even at the local bodies’ tiers,” he emphasized.
Salamat stressed that to fill the reserved seats for minorities, separate constituencies should be declared and minority members of the parliament should be elected through direct elections constituency or division-wise by minority voters.
Minorities Alliance Pakistan (MAP) Chairman Akmal Bhatti told Christian Daily International that the 34 reserved seats meant little for minorities, especially Christians, when they could not elect their own representatives.
“The present system has only produced ‘factotums’ dependent on mainstream parties,” he said. They neither oppose discriminatory legislation nor contribute towards reforms, he added, citing the stalemate over the Christian personal laws.
Endorsing Salamat’s views on the direct election of minority representatives to the reserved seats, Bhatti called for enacting a constitutional amendment wherein minorities in each province should have representation at the federal level.
“Moreover, the reserved seats should be increased in keeping with the Constitution’s preamble that urges ‘adequate provision shall be made to safeguard the legitimate interests of minorities, backward and depressed classes,’” he said.
Shahzad Imran Sahotra, the only Christian contesting for the National Assembly as an independent candidate from Islamabad’s NA-56 constituency, said he had decided to contest the polls against the Muslim political heavyweights banking on the support of a sizeable Christian population in the constituency.
“Independent candidates are the best hope of getting Christian grievances heard. Representatives chosen on the ‘reserved’ seat system tow the party line and rarely raise their community’s legitimate concerns,” he said.
“I jumped into this race only for my community. We have so many problems, no education, no healthcare, no jobs. We don’t even have enough water.”
However, not all Christians are in favor of the dual-vote electoral system.
Anwar Lal Dean, a Christian senator belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), said he supported the current electoral system.
“I have been with the PPP since 1985. I did not have the resources to contest for a general seat. The party made me a senator in recognition of my loyalty and services,” he said.
Rejecting the allegation that those who fill the reserved seats obey only the party, Dean said his party had extended strong support to minority representatives to solve the problems of the minorities.
Peter Jacob, executive director of the Lahore-based research and advocacy group Center for Social Justice, said that dual vote requiring separate electorates would only aggravate inter-faith divisions.
“The basic question is to address segregation and discrimination on the basis of religion. Separate lists and ballot boxes will bring us closer to a separate electorate,” he said.
If the seats are increased in line with the 2023 census, Hindus need to be allocated more seats because they are the largest minority now. But such an increase may not be acceptable to Christians, he said.
“Representation in the name of religion is basically wrong,” Jacob said.“Formation of constituencies will also be an issue, given the scattered demography of the minorities. Instead, political parties should train and choose reserved seat candidates on the basis of merits because in the long run performance of a legislator matters,” he said.