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Ambiguous signals — Religion in politics

April 16, 2013

A NEW issue has cropped up in the media with reports quoting unnamed Election Commission of Pakistan officials as saying that candidates will not be allowed to use religion or sectarianism in a bid to attract voters for next month’s general elections. Parties and individuals will not be allowed to campaign against anyone on the basis of religion, ethnicity or caste etc while speeches containing sectarian or communal content will be disallowed. All these points are already present in the elections’ code of conduct and the ECP has clarified that no new code has been issued. Yet further explanation from the commission is in order as the news reports have posed a new set of questions.

Numerous parties with a declared Islamist ideology and with varying degrees of influence are running in the polls. If the code suggests that all religion-based parties cannot contest, then why were such parties registered in the first place? And if the code is meant to keep hate mongers at bay how can it be enforced, even if in principle it is a commendable goal? After all, some religious parties belonging to the hard right have formed an alliance, which includes groups that are supposedly banned, while groups campaigning on an ethnic platform are also contesting. Do such groups fall foul of the code or not? Returning officers have been mandated with enforcing the code of conduct, but is the mechanism in place to allow strict adherence to the code in this regard as well as in other aspects? Here it should be pointed out that there is a difference between campaigning on an agenda of hate and using religious symbols in political discourse or claiming to represent oppressed communities. The problem starts when groups or individuals resort to demagoguery or hate speech to win influence and unfortunately, we have seen no shortage of such politics in Pakistan.

We feel the debate about faith-based politics should be left to the next parliament, where the question of allowing or disallowing the mixture of politics and religion can be discussed. In the meantime, the ECP needs to spell out exactly what the restrictions in the above-mentioned clauses of the code of conduct refer to before an open-ended debate ensues about the role of religion in politics, Islamic ideology and the ideology of Pakistan. Perhaps the more immediate matter at hand is coming up with an effective method to monitor the campaigns for hate speech so that candidates don’t exploit communal differences to gain a few votes.