Local Government and Religious Minorities

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The Local Government system acknowledges the citizenry’s right to be governed democratically at the local level. In 2015 Pakistan opted for the party-based Local Government elections for first time in its turbulent history. It is expected that it will open up an opportunity for the political parties to effectively organize themselves at the grassroots.

In the context of governance most of the citizens’ centric day to day transactions (e.g. water supply, sewerage, waste management, markets management, health care, primary education etc.) happen at the level of the Local Government. The quality of this experiential relationship will influence the trust matrix vis-à-vis the nation’s democratic processes.

In Pakistan the provincial governments since 2009 had been struggling to cobble-up a viable democratic system of Local Government according to the constitutional command of Article 140-A. The Article 140-A says, “Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative, and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local government.” The Charter of Democracy (COD) inked by the Pakistan people’s Party (ruling party 2008-2013) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (ruling party since 2013) in May 2006 had promised that, “the Local Bodies Election will be held on party basis through Provincial Election Commissions in respective provinces and constitutional protection will be given to the Local Bodies to make them autonomous and answerable to their respective Assemblies as well as to the people through regular courts of law.” (Point 10 of 36 point COD). However it was during a Supreme Court of Pakistan hearing on ‘law and order situation in Balochistan’ in 2010 that the missing vigilant governance at the local level was identified as one of the contributing factor in the chaotic situation on ground. Since then the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the provincial High Courts had been reminding the federal and the provincial governments to implement the Article 140-A.

Resultantly in December-2015 the countrywide exercise of holding the local government elections have been completed. However, the Local Governments have yet to be operationalized in Punjab and Sindh provinces, and adequately resources in the Federal Capital-Islamabad, Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

In terms of representation almost all provincial Local Government laws provide for reserved seats for women, peasant/labour and religious minorities with varying numbers. The Punjab, the Sindh, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Acts additionally provide for reserved seats for the youth. The Balochistan’s law provides for reserved seats for professionals and social workers instead of youth.

The system for elections on reserved seats also varies from province to province. In Islamabad and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa these seats were directly contested and the lowest level i.e. the Union Council (Islamabad) and Village/Neighbourhood Councils (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). In the Sindh the reserved seats are to be filled on the basis of party lists. In Punjab and Balochistan these seats are filled through indirect election.

Representation of religious minorities:

The non-Muslim Pakistanis’ rights to be seen as equal citizens remained challenging in the design of local governments. Although they were entitled to context direct seats and the vote was on the basis of joint electorate, but their adequate representation, inclusion in mainstream electoral processes and participation in the local government elections remained a challenge. The political parties missed the opportunity to mainstream minorities as very insignificant number of candidates was lucky to get party tickets.

The religious minorities complained about their inadequate representation, biased legal frameworks, and the practices of political exclusion. There are many Union Councils in the country which are clearly dominated by non- Muslim populations in Punjab and Sindh, but by and large Muslim candidates were fielded for electoral competition. The allocation of a reserved quota of seats for minorities had both pros and cons. It is useful in places where non-Muslims are in a minority. However, it becomes a problem where they are in the majority because the groups and political parties fielding candidates in these Union Councils are dominated nationally and provincially by Muslims, complained leaders of non-Muslim communities saying, it can be useful if the Muslims can also vote for the minority candidates. This will help mainstream the minority candidates in local politics in the beginning, and eventually at the provincial and national levels.

There cannot be two opinions that the comparatively smaller size of Union Council (25,000-30,000 people) in the Local government design can provide religious minorities a better chance to make decisions that affect their daily lives at the grassroots besides providing a nursery to groom future leaders. The non-Muslims have far greater opportunities in local governments than the provincial or national governments at this stage of Pakistan’s social and political development. However, it can only happen if the policy makers understand the issue and allow non-Muslims full representation in areas where they constitute a majority by making requisite changes in the law and procedures and making it mandatory for the local political groups and mainstream political parties to award tickets according to each area’s population.

Leaders from the Hindu, Sikh and Christian communities publically protested over denial of adequate share in award of tickets by the political parties in areas dominated by them. In some areas they boycotted the local elections on the pretext that the system deprived the voters belonging to religious minorities to elect their own representatives through their direct vote in the local Government system. The Church leaders also led a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly to reject the ‘selection’ of minorities instead of ‘election.’ The minority leader selected by political parties doesn’t listen to grievances of smaller communities within the minorities,” they complained.

An exception

A Christian candidate for Union Council No 38 in Okara won the election defeating a ruling party (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) candidate with a 560-vote margin. An independent candidate Iftikhar Jagga bagged 3,080 votes while PML-N’s Nadeem Abbas ended up with 2,520 votes in elections for the rural union council of Okara where a majority of Muslims were voters. Having a degree in Business Administration, the son of a tenant, Mr Jagga works for a poultry medicine manufacturing company. He says he decided to contest the elections on the platform of the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP) after majority voters of both Muslim and Christian communities asked him to represent them in the Union Council. He attributed religious harmony in his community to the work of the AMP movement for the peasants’ rights. His winning penal had equal representation of Muslims and Christians.

Analysis of Reserved Seats for Religious Minorities in the Local Government Elections

Level Religious minorities Criterion
The National Assembly of Pakistan 10 (2.92 %) Party lists. These are closed list submitted by the political parties before the General Election. They can’t change it. However if the list is fully exhausted then new names are sought by the Election Commission of Pakistan
The Senate of Pakistan 4 (3.85 %) Indirect election through the electoral college (the respective provincial assemblies)
Islamabad Local Government Union Council: 1 (8 %)

Metropolitan Corporation: 3 (5 %)

Union Council: Direct election

Metropolitan Corporation: Indirect election

The Punjab Assembly 8 (2.16 %) Party lists. These are closed list submitted by the political parties before the General Election. They can’t change it. However if the list is fully exhausted then new names are sought by the Election Commission of Pakistan
Local Government in the Punjab 8 % Indirect election
The Sindh Assembly 9 (5.36 %) Party lists. These are closed list submitted by the political parties before the General Election. They can’t change it. However if the list is fully exhausted then new names are sought by the Election Commission of Pakistan
Local Government in the Sindh 5 % Party lists (this clause has been challenged in the Sindh High Court)
The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly 3 (2.42 %) Party lists. These are closed list submitted by the political parties before the General Election. They can’t change it. However if the list is fully exhausted then new names are sought by the Election Commission of Pakistan
Local Government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Village/Neighbourhood Council: 6.50 %

Teshsil/District: 5 %

 

Village/Neighbourhood Council: Direct

Teshsil/District: Indirect

 

The Balochistan Assembly 3 (4.62 %) Party lists. These are closed list submitted by the political parties before the General Election. They can’t change it. However if the list is fully exhausted then new names are sought by the Election Commission of Pakistan
Local Government in Balochistan 5 % Indirect election

 

 

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