Disenfranchised in Pakistan
Pakistan's parliamentary elections are scheduled for February 18, but they have already been rocked by violence and turmoil. The Parliament, which elects the president, selected Pervez Musharraf to another term last October, but the General instated emergency law and dismissed the Supreme Court judges who would have opposed his confirmation. Meanwhile, candidates for Parliament and party leaders, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were stumping in anticipation of early January elections. Musharraf was confirmed by the new Supreme Court, stepped down from his army post, and lifted the state of emergency. Then, on December 27, Bhutto was assassinated.
Clearly, the country as a whole faces major challenges this week. But Christians (who make up less than two percent of the Pakistan's population) and other minorities face unique political obstacles of their own. Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS UK (Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement), explains their dilemma.
The parliamentary elections in Pakistan had almost entered the final phase. The election commission had completed dealing with allegations and objections against the candidates and published the final ballot list. I didn't see anything that could have derailed the parliamentary election scheduled for January 8.
Now, shortly after the end of the 40 days of mourning for Benazir Bhutto, we are about to try again, although the vacuum created by her death cannot be filled. Her presence was a guaranteed win for some politicians but a threat for others.
All the parties, including the PPP (Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party), have already distributed party tickets, which nominate candidates to campaign under the banner of a particular party. I am very concerned that no political party has given a ticket to a non-Muslim. There will be 1,070 elected members in Pakistan's Parliament, but Christians will remain voiceless for the next five years of Pakistan's Parliament if things don't change.
This, sadly, is typical. I witnessed the same situation in 2002. Political parties nominated minority members only for the reserve seats, which are proportionately allocated to the political parties for religious minority members of Parliament. Since the minority MPs didn't need public votes, they were not accountable to the public.
It is interesting to note that Bhutto always had the support of most Christians, despite our tribulations under her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Christians hoped that she would truly be a moderate force for democracy, but even before her assassination, she betrayed those hopes.
Christians who supported PPP and other secular political parties comforted themselves that it was the first joint election after the abolishment of the separate electorate system, in which religious minority candidates competed almost always unsuccessfully against Muslim candidates. Political parties, we thought, should be given time for adjustment. We have been proven wrong.
This regrettable and discriminatory attitude is not new to me; I am not shocked, but disappointed. Christians have been considered second-class citizens since 1949, when the democratic dictatorship imposed Objective Resolution nicknamed Pakistan's Magna Carta and declared that Pakistan would be modeled on Islamic ideology. Ever since then, the situation has gotten progressively worse, with almost all consequent rulers contributing to this situation.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto nationalized schools and colleges in 1972, taking the top schools out of the church's control. When General Zia-ul-Haq's regime decided to return the schools and colleges to their owners two administrations later, Christians were refused entry to Christian schools and colleges, while the privileged were admitted.