PESHAWAR: The filling of over 3,000 vacant seats reserved for non-Muslims in the village and neighbourhood councils in areas where they have no presence has become a constant headache for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) due to loopholes in the relevant law.

An official said that under the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act, 2013, it was binding on the ECP to fill all the seats falling vacant within 90 days.

Besides five to 10 general seats, there are also five reserved seats in each village and neighbourhood council, including two for women and one each for the youth, peasants and non-Muslims. The by-elections on 4,495 vacant seats, including 3,050 for non-Muslims, 23 youths, 22 peasants/workers, 1,129 women and 271 general seats, is being held on Sunday (today).

Of the total vacant seats for non-Muslims, 3,010 would again remain vacant after the Sunday’s by-elections as 33 candidates on such seats have been elected unopposed while a few candidates are contesting on seven such seats, according to official data.

Minister hints at abolishing such seats in areas where there are no non-Muslims

After the by-elections the ECP would be bound under the law to again announce schedule for holding elections on 3,010 vacant seats for non-Muslims within 90 days, sources in the regional office of ECP told this reporter.

As the non-Muslims have no presence in such village and neighbourhood councils, the vacant seats would again go unfilled, the sources said, adding that the practice of announcing schedule by ECP would continue until amendments were made to the relevant law.

“It is difficult for us to announce schedule for elections on the vacant seats of non-Muslims again and again where no candidate is available,” an official said. He said that the ECP was also responsible to conduct elections for Senate, National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies.

The announcement of schedule, appointment of returning officers, receiving nomination papers and their scrutiny, public notices, awarding election symbols, etc is a very laborious job, he said. “We have to start preparation for the general elections to be held in 2018 rather than to engage in the repeated by-elections of local bodies,” he said.

Asked whether the ECP has raised this issue with the provincial government, he said that during the law-making process the ECP had pointed out several flaws and suggested their removal. However, he said, the officials at the helm of affairs had conveyed to the ECP at that time that such issues would be handled once they surfaced.

He said that the existing law for local bodies was actually passed in haste and now it was the provincial government’s responsibility to take notice of the issue.

When contacted, Minister for Local Government and Rural Development Department Inayatullah Khan said that his department knew about the issue of non-Muslims. “The provincial government has decided to make amendments to the law as the ECP cannot announce schedule for such vacant posts repeatedly,” he said. The minister said that the department was contemplating amendments to abolish reserved seats for non-Muslims in areas where they had no presence.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2016