The Myth of ‘Free and Fair’ Elections in Pakistan

Pakistan’s House of Parliament

Imagine if members of the Mormon or Catholic communities were forced to declare that they were “non-Christian” in order to cast a ballot in the 2012 U.S. elections.  In a few months, Pakistanis will take to the polls to elect a new government, and for the second consecutive election cycle, millions of Muslims belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community —an intensely persecuted religious community branded “non-Muslim” by constitutional amendment—will sit home without the ability to freely exercise their right to vote.  Pakistan’s little known voter apartheid system is not only a human rights debacle but also a self-inflicted open wound that all Pakistanis should acknowledge and treat.

The equal right to vote is part of Pakistan’s DNA. Addressing Pakistan’s First Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, commented: “Every [Pakistani], no matter what his colour, caste or creed, is first, second or last a citizen of the State with equal rights, privileges and obligations.”  Jinnah would later caution Pakistanis about the need “to stand guard over the development and maintenance of democracy.”  In the face of Jinnah’s timeless pronouncements, however, Pakistan’s electoral system has devolved into a façade that conceals inequity and threatens the integrity of Pakistan’s democracy.

For decades, as part of a joint electorate system, all Pakistani citizens had an equal vote irrespective of their faith.   A Christian, Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim (regardless of what kind of Muslim) shared the same political franchise and same opportunity to elect political candidates for office.  But in 1985, spurred on by religious hardliners who could not stomach sharing the right to vote with non-Muslims or minorities, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq ordered a split of the joint electorate and the creation of “non-Muslim” electoral rolls where non-Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims (who were declared “non-Muslims” in 1974) could only vote for 5% of National Assembly seats allocated for them.  This executive decree effectively disenfranchised non-Muslims who did not want to be segregated from mainstream society.  For Ahmadi Muslims, in particular, the split of the joint electorate was especially pernicious because they were now forced to disavow their Muslim identity against their conscience in order to vote.  Not surprisingly, after 1985, Ahmadi Muslims sat out national, state and local elections.

In 2002, under rightful pressure from the international community, President Musharraf reversed his predecessor’s decree and reinstated Pakistan’s original joint electorate.  Non-Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims lauded his executive decree as a positive step towards the restoration of Jinnah’s democratic ideals.   In advance of elections in April 2002, all Pakistanis were able to register to vote using a form that did not require the voter to mention his religion.  But within only four months, in a brazen attempt to appease religious hardliners who were upset at the restoration of the joint electorate, President Musharraf amended his presidential decree to apply only to non-Muslims but not Ahmadi Muslims (under the amendment, their “status remain[ed] unchanged” and they were subject to inclusion on a “supplementary list”).  In this perverse arrangement, he effectively included all Pakistani citizens except for Ahmadi Muslims as part of the joint electorate.

More than a decade later, Ahmadi Muslims remain victims of two presidential decrees that have snatched their right to vote for decades.  Adding insult to injury, Pakistan enforces this system of religious segregation at the voting booths by reinstating voter registration forms that require each individual to list his or her confessional creed.  Anyone wishing to be listed as a Muslim must denounce the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community’s founder—Mirza Ghulam Ahmad—as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim.  (Notably, the same declaration is required on application forms for passports and national identity cards.)

In the face of such stark evidence of disenfranchisement, Pakistan’s political leaders have exhibited willful blindness.  Last month, President Zardari misleadingly assured foreign diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson, that Pakistan would conduct “free, fair and transparent” elections.  President Zardari did not so much as acknowledge his predecessors’ discriminatory executive decrees.  When confronted with questions about Pakistan’s voter apartheid at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review of Pakistan’s human rights record last October, Hinna Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s foreign minister, ignored the issue entirely.  In 2008, during a similar UN session, Pakistan’s political delegation lied to the international community by insisting that Pakistan had restored the joint electorate for all of Pakistan’s citizens.  As a result, Pakistan’s voter apartheid practices continue unabated, even though they blatantly violate Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been in force since 1976 and to which Pakistan has now acceded without major reservations.

But the real tragedy of Pakistan’s voter apartheid is not in the resulting international human rights violations; it is instead in the disempowerment of one of Pakistan’s most engaged and intellectually vibrant communities.  In a country with a 58% literacy rate, Ahmadi Muslims stand out as nearly 100% literate and are well represented in the professions.  For example, Pakistan’s first foreign minister and celebrated world diplomat, Sir Zafrullah Khan, and only Nobel laureate, Dr. Abdus Salam, were Ahmadi Muslims (though Pakistani authorities have erased the word “Muslim” from their tombstones).  Were they alive today, they could not vote in Pakistan’s upcoming elections.  Hundreds of thousands of Ahmadi Muslim civil servants, entrepreneurs, educators, scientists, doctors and lawyers face the same reality today.

There is a glimmer of hope.  On February 28, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took a significant step towards ending voter discrimination against Ahmadi Muslims by responding to a 2007 petition filed by an Ahmadi Muslim challenging Pakistan’s discriminatory voter registration system.  In its order, a three-judge panel, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, directed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and Pakistan’s Attorney General (AG) to explain the constitutional status and viability of the 2002 presidential decree.  While it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court of Pakistan will have the courage to strike down Pakistan’s discriminatory voter apparatus, the February 28 action marks the first time ever that any Pakistani institution has solicited an official explanation over voter apartheid practices.

The window of opportunity for Pakistan to restore universal suffrage is rapidly closing.  To restore free and fair voting rights for Ahmadi Muslims, Pakistan’s political leaders must demonstrate not only political will but also moral courage to confront anti-Ahmadi zealots—a difficult but necessary undertaking in an increasingly volatile sectarian climate.  Indeed, all Pakistanis suffer when Ahmadi Muslims cannot freely participate in the political process.  With the simple stroke of a pen, President Zardari can repeal Musharraf’s presidential decree and remove the irrelevant declaration of faith from voter registration forms, and millions of Ahmadi Muslims can vote alongside all other Pakistanis, as self-identified Muslims, without paralysis or restriction.  All that is necessary is swift and bold action based on a rekindling of the democratic spirit that lies at the heart of Pakistan’s very birth.