KARACHI: The influence of faith-based minorities on the outcome of the elections must not be underestimated – many are enrolled as voters with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
Aamir Mehmood, 37, has never been to any political jalsa, nor does he intend to in the coming days as the season of election rallies begins. It's not that he is scared of a bomb blast or a suicide attack. It’s because as a member of the Ahmadi community, he feels completely disenchanted and sees no reason to be part of the milling crowd.
The four million-strong community will not be casting its votes in the upcoming polls. “We are Pakistanis, but we are separated and discriminated from the mainstream on the basis of religion,” says Saleemuddin, spokesperson of the community in Pakistan, who goes by his first name only. “This is against the very spirit of democracy,” he adds.
For the Ahmadis at least, he says, the separate electorate imposed by General Ziaul Haq in 1985, remains despite the “erroneous impression” that Pakistan has shifted from a separate to a joint electorate. Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims in the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan.
"We have been forced to boycott the elections because to vote, as an Ahmadi, we have to break all ties with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which is unthinkable and unacceptable," said Mehmood.
Earlier, Saleemuddin explained to Dawn.com, “In 2002, through a presidential order, issued on June 17, 2002, Pervez Musharraf created a separate supplementary list of voters in which Ahmadi voters were placed as non-Muslims. That order has not been cancelled, and remains in force.”
According to official statistics, there are 2.77 million non-Muslim voters in the country, and 13 districts in Sindh and two in Punjab have significant presence of these voters.Again in 2008, to register as voters, those who claimed to be Muslims had to sign a certificate of faith and deny the veracity of the founder of the Ahmadi community. Because no Ahmadi would agree to do that, they were as a result denied their right to vote.
And thus, like in 2002 and in 2008, the community has decided to boycott the 2013 elections.
"There are boxes to tick for whether you are a Muslim, Jew, Christian etc, but for Ahmadis, there is a separate voter list," he told Dawn.com.
According to Saleemuddin, the Form 2 (Annex IV) which is the same for all voters, requires them to tick one of the given boxes that mentions religion. To ensure that an Ahmadi may not tick himself as Muslim, a special certificate is added on the back of the form wherein every applicant who ticks himself as a Muslim is made to sign a certificate where they must declare they are not associated with the Qadiani or Lahori group, and that they do not call themselves Ahmadi.
Among the several recommendations made by Democracy Reporting International (DRI), an organisation that advocates electoral reforms, a call was made to abolish the separate list for Ahmadi voters during a public hearing on October 17 by the Senate's Special Committee on Election Issues.
"There is not a single leader I can think of who has the ability or the courage to even discuss, let alone legislate to scrap the discriminatory laws used as a tool against minorities," said a disillusioned Mehmood.
He added: "I don't see anything in the manifestos of the various political parties to prove that they want to bring alienated minorities back into the fold of society."
"But then what can you expect when the Constitution of Pakistan discriminates against minorities, who cannot even become the president of this country! No political leadership has ever said anything about that or even broached the subject," he points out.
"States outlawing some groups from aspiring for the highest offices in the country are not truly democratic," agreed Adnan Rehmat, who heads Islamabad-based Intermedia, a media development organisation committed to recording violations of media freedom and enhancing freedom. He adds that the Constitution should not have "favourites" and terms it "institutionalised discrimination".
But Ahmadis are not the only ones who have faced hard times over the last five years.
Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council, said his community suffered a lot in the last five years like never before. "Never ever did you see such a mass exodus of Hindus as in the last five years of Pakistan Peoples Party."
A die-hard follower of PPP, Vankwani said for years he and many from his community voted for the PPP. "But no more. We are completely disillusioned."
He said there was no security for Hindus. "They were forced to convert and kidnapping for ransom had reached a new height."
"We will vote for Mian Nawaz Sharif, I've gone through PML-N's manifesto and there is much respite for the minorities. If not all of 1.5million, he will get as many as 1 to 1.2 million votes from our community."
Menin Rodrigues, a Christian belonging to the corporate sector squirms at being termed a minority.
Preferring the term non-Muslim Pakistani, he said: "We contribute in every way possible to the development and growth of our country. We are the salt of the nation; we give flavour to the country. Isolate us as ‘minorities’ and there are bound to be communal conflicts."
At the same time, Rodrigues feels that elections have never really had any direct impact on them and added: "Not much can be expected from any current political models unless there is an absolute turnaround in vision, commitment and tolerance."
The same was endorsed by Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political and defence analyst. "The elections will hardly bring any respite to religious minorities because the societal groups and parties that target them do not get their votes," he tells Dawn.com.
On the other hand, he said the parties that get their vote like the PPP, the PML and the ANP, often engage in "fire-fighting" after a tragic incident has taken place. For the most part, says Rizvi, they "avoid sustained political campaign against religious extremists".
But do minorities' votes matter? Going by the 1998 census, they just make up a little over three per cent of the 180 million of Pakistan's population, a majority of them Sunni Muslims.
Niaz Ahmed, deputy country director of the DRI, believes so. "Minorities’ votes matter because the state of Pakistan is under a constitutional as well as international obligation of ensuring universal franchise and protecting every citizen’s right to vote and also to get elected."
According to official statistics, there are 2.77 million non-Muslim voters in the country, and 13 districts in Sindh and two in Punjab have significant presence of these voters.
In at least 30 electoral constituencies of the national and provincial legislatures where elections are to be held on open seats, winning the endorsement of sizable faith-based minorities such as Hindus and Christians can make the difference between being part of the ruling coalition or sitting on the opposition benches.
Yet Rizvi observes: "These votes which are small and scattered cannot generate enough political clout to pressure political parties effectively".
In fact, for lower caste Hindus, there is no representation in government at all; even their votes are cast on their behalf by their landlords.
But Rehmat forewarns that for the two main parties (PML-N and PPP) seeking power not just in the provinces but vying to form the government at the centre, it will not be politically wise to not focus on winning the votes of faith-based minorities.
"It could potentially cost them the chance to form the federal government," he emphasises.
He further said the influence of faith-based minorities on the outcome of elections must not be underestimated because not just non-Muslims, but also large sectarian minorities within Muslims are enrolled as voters with the Election Commission of Pakistan.
"With several grave attacks on them that have killed thousands of them over the past five years, they are expected to vote in consolidated blocs which will affect the chances of parties that are seen as inimical to their interests — such as PML-N," he pointed out.