Religious minorities do not have the right to direct vote for their representatives at the provincial and national levels, under the Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance 2015, they cannot even elect their local representatives, participants of a rally, held in connection with the Direct Election Now campaign, said on Tuesday.
The rally was held in front of the Faisalabad Press Club to mark the National Minorities Day. The day is observed as a pledge by the government to safeguard the rights of minorities and to commemorate the contributions and services of minorities to Pakistan.
The rally was organised by the Peace and Human Development (PHD Foundation), Association of Women for Awareness and Motivation (AWAM), the Aawaz District Forum of South Asia Partnership (SAP), the Adara-i-Samaji Behbood and the Rights of Expression, Assembly, Association and Thought (REAT).
The participants of the rally demanded that the government withdraw the Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 and hold the local government elections under the Punjab Local Government Act 2013 to ensure political empowerment of religious minorities. They said voters must have a direct say in the election of candidates on reserved seats.
PHD Foundation director Suneel Malik said the Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 attempted to prevent the political empowerment of marginalised groups and discourage independent candidates, who were not affiliated with political parties, to contest elections.
The government is bent on enforcing indirect elections despite a barrage of criticism from civil society and religious groups, he said. “This is an undemocratic move and will only serve to benefit the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz… emerging political parties that represent the working class and religious minorities will suffer.”
Malik said all other provinces had opted for direct election to reserved seats at the union council level. “It is sad that voters will have no direct say in electing councillors to reserved seats. Is this not discrimination?”
AWAM director Nazia Sardar said the local government formed the basis of a democratic system. “It is a nursery for a new generation of political leaders and helps local public representatives engage with national politics.” She said it was pity that indirect elections on reserved seats would, once again, keep marginalised groups away from political activity.
“The Punjab Local Government (Amendment) Ordinance 2015 was passed by a PML-N-majority Assembly and will only serve to help the ruling party manipulate the election.”
AAWAZ District Forum president Robin Daniel said candidates selected for reserved seats will be representatives of their political parties. “You cannot expect them to put the interests of the groups they supposedly represent above the interests of their parties…neither will they have an independent vote bank nor popular support.”
Shazia George, a member of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, said that such elections would leave religious minorities insignificant, ineffective and apolitical. “They can neither be the elected voice of the people, nor can they share the authority and resources of the local government.”
Shafiq Sharif, a programme officer of the South Asia Partnership (SAP), said the elections will have a procedure similar to the general elections, where voters from a union council will directly elect the chairman and vice-chairman as joint candidates and six councillors on general seats. The elected panel will then select members for seats reserved for the youth, workers, minorities and women.
Adara Samaji Behbood president Irshad Parkash said this could cause voters to lose confidence in the democratic process and leave a perception that the political system has nothing to offer for the empowerment and mainstreaming of weaker groups.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2015.