Pakistan is gearing up for elections in July, which are expected to be the most aggressively contested polls in the country since the turn of the millennium. Not only has a fraught code of civility been broken down by political parties, accusations of institutional partisanship and meddling are at new heights. An air of uncertainty has enveloped a process essential to keeping Pakistan’s tenuous democratic credentials in place.
Unregistered Voters Being Inducted Into the System
Despite all the dramatic developments vying for the attention of observers interested in the elections, a tidbit of demographic data caught the attention of newspapers in the region. The Election Commission of Pakistan released information on voter rolls, and it showed an increase in minorities by 30 percent over the previous election.
That’s 3.63 million non-Muslim voters currently, of which Hindus are the majority (1.77 million). And so, the question some are asking is, what does this mean for the elections, if anything at all?
The answer requires a little context. Part of the increase in voter registrations for minorities can be attributed to the natural population growth of youth coming of age for elections – but this substantial increase has a lot to do with unregistered voters being rallied into listing on the system.
Kapil Dev, a prominent Hindu activist and media commentator, cites the example of Umerkot and Tharparkar, where political parties, especially the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the local community have led drives to increase registrations.
The actual numbers of minorities eligible to vote may even be higher – for example, the innumerable communities of Hindus in the desert lands of Pakistan who are nomadic and have not settled anywhere permanently. Add poverty and illiteracy to this mix, and you have a potentially higher pool of first-time voters that can further increase the voting rolls come next election (after this one).
Pakistan EC Spearheading Increase in Voters
But it is important to note that the rise in the voter rolls has been observed in the majority population as well. In 2013, the overall population registered for the electoral rolls was 86.19 million, and in 2018 it has grown to 105.96 million – it is increasing at a rate higher than population growth.
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However, the percentage increase of minorities on the electoral rolls is 7 percent higher than that of the overall increase, the rosier picture perhaps reflecting a lower baseline of participation.
Both improvements in the use of technology and processes of the Election Commission of Pakistan are helping spearhead this change. Most importantly though, it is the interest generated by the surge in popularity of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in 2013, that began to break the traditional two-party system that existed at the national level.
Contestation is leading to registrations.
Just two election cycles ago, the winning margin in 88 of the 272 National Assembly seats was less than 10,000 votes. The political competition has only intensified since. And it is in constituencies like these which have minority voters that outcomes can be influenced.
According to a study titled Religious Minorities in Pakistan’s Elections, published by the Community World Service Asia in August 2012, in the 2008 election, there were 59 constituencies where the number of non-Muslims was more than the margin of winning and losing between the first and second candidates. At least on the surface, the numbers suggest an outsize role of minorities in democracy relative to their population.
Issues Affecting Minority Votes
Despite what seems to be a fairly straightforward electoral calculus for influence, the situation on the ground is determined by local politics. The electoral calculus works on the presumption that in the ‘hot spots’ where minorities can determine electoral results, specific minority groups will lean towards specific political parties. This, however, is not always the reality, and groups can switch sides (in politics).
The potential influence of minorities in determining election outcomes is limited even in ‘hot spots’ like Umerkot and Tharparkar in Sindh – districts where the highest concentration of certain minorities can be found. Because, barring Karachi, the rest of Sindh allows little political choice for the minority voter due to the dominance of the electable PPP.
And because of the relative poverty of many minority communities in Pakistan, their demands mirror that of the Muslim in their areas: local development.
In some ways, the Hindu voter and the Muslim voter are the same in underdeveloped areas because they want the same things.
Currently, the legal system in Pakistan allows one vote, but dual representation. Minorities can vote for general election candidates in all constituencies, and at the same time they get 10 reserved seats overall in the national assembly, as well as seats in the provincial assembly. Few non-Muslims run for the general seats, although Mahesh Kumar Malani won a general provincial seat in 2013 with the support of Muslim constituents.
For every 27.2 MNAs a party gets, they can select one minority member for the National Assembly.
Minorities have long demanded that they be allowed to vote for their reserved member and have them elected rather than selected, so they are more responsive to the needs of communities above local politicking rather than being beholden to parties.
So, with this increase in the electoral rolls, the role of minorities should remain pretty much the same as it has been in 2008 and 2013. Political pundits have placed both the PPP and PMLN in the lead in Sindh and Punjab respectively (where most of Pakistan’s minorities reside).
If that were to change (say with a much better showing of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf), then you’d have candidates knocking twice on the doors of their Hindu and Christian voters – from all parties – come next election cycle.
(Fasi Zaka is a media analyst who has anchored television news programmes, hosts his eponymous radio show and writes Op-Ed columns in Pakistan. He is from Charsadda in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is a Rhodes Scholar and is currently serving as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He can be reached @fasi_zaka. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)