For the 3,339 seats allocated to minorities in the Khyber Pakhtunkha local elections – one in each union council – only 349 candidates filed nomination papers. There was no election on about 90 percent of seats designated to minorities.
“Reserving a seat for non-Muslims in every local council shows poor demographic knowledge and a lack of proper homework, if not an out of place zeal to raise ones ‘pro-minority’ credentials,” says Tahir Mehdi, who works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group focusing on governance and democracy. “Non-Muslims population of the province is not evenly spread over the province’s diverse geography. It is instead concentrated in certain pockets. That could be one of the reasons behind the low number of minority candidates.”
More important factors impacting the prospects of an effective representation of religious minorities, however, lie hidden in the design of local government elections, he says.
According to Population Census 1998, the number of non-Muslims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was less than one hundred thousand. This comes out to be 0.6 percent of the total 17.7 million population of the province.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Local Government Act 2013 divides the entire province into 3,339 local council constituencies, with each representing roughly a population of one thousand. A local council has on average seven general seat members, two women, one peasant/worker, one youth and one non-Muslim.
The Act defines three tiers of governance embodied in district councils, tehsil councils and local councils. The reserved seats for minorities at the district and tehsil council level are filled through a party-list system in proportion to the general seats won by a party.
“Minority members are left at the mercy of local power wielders”
“Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf ensured that religious minorities had a chance to elect their representative at the lowest level,” said provincial Information Minister Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani. “But there is nothing one can do if there are no religious minorities living in a union council.”
Awami National Party veteran Ghulam Ahmad Bilour believes people in villages are not as interested in politics. Asked why political parties do not educate them about the importance of participating in politics, he said it was the responsibility of the media. “Political parties don’t motivate people to file nomination papers with them,” he said.
Christian Democratic Party Chairman Ben Hur Yousuf says local government laws in the province were made without proper homework, and no effort was made to educate religious minorities about local elections. “The election process was made extremely complex, without making religious minorities aware of it,” he says.
Hina Patras who filed nomination papers for a tehsil council in Swat, said the process was extremely complicated. “Christians contested elections in Swat for the first time,” she said. Hina also complained of discriminatory attitude, but said the “complexity of the system remained the main hurdle.”
“While the elections at district and tehsil are party based, those of local (village and neighborhood) councils are non-party, which means that at this level, independent candidates, without nominations from and support of political parties, have to contest elections on their own,” Tahir Mehdi said.
“Minority members are left at the mercy of local power wielders at the village council level where direct elections are held and at the district and tehsil council level their induction into the governance system has been made subject to ‘the will’ of ruling parties.”