General Elections, The Social Contract And Religious Minorities

The overall political stake for religious minorities does not seem to be sufficiently large, carry much weight or be widely accepted

General Elections, The Social Contract And Religious Minorities

The long-awaited general elections were held on February 8, 2024. General elections were anticipated in 2022 after the no-confidence motion succeeded against former prime minister Imran Khan. Elections for at least two provincial assemblies were expected in 2023 after the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assemblies were dissolved. Instead, provincial caretaker governments remained in power for far longer than their constitutionally defined terms. 

Even when a date for the general elections was set, doubts were raised about whether elections would be held, with some citing the cold weather or the threat of terror attacks. Somehow, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), with help from the caretaker governments, managed to hold largely peaceful elections. 

The results of the elections, however, were quite surprising. The most "targeted" party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), emerged with the most seats in the National Assembly. No single party, however, could attain a simple majority to form a government alone. The process of forming a new government remains in flux to date, and speculation is rife on who would actually be able to form a government. 

Despite the uncertainty and misgivings about the elections, a large number of people came out of their homes and voted on February 8. Data compiled by the non-governmental election observation organisation, Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), shows approximately 60.6 million people voted in the February 8 general elections. Based on the Form-47s issued by ECP, FAFEN determined overall voter turnout to be at 47.6%. It is now expected that the new government will be formed per the political process and the parliamentary system defined in the 1973 Constitution. 

Political processes include establishing a social contract between the citizens and the state. Different philosophers, from John Locke to Jean-Jacques Rousseau describe the social contract in detail. Regarding the social contract, political thought around it has evolved from a concept of consent to an agreement. For John Rawls, the principle of justice regulates the basic institutions of society. The social contract has different stakeholders, from franchisees of different parties and various ethnic groups to the different social classes. Among them are religious minorities, who are among the most neglected in Pakistan. 

Minority candidates succeeded because the voters decided to vote for their candidate and to disregard a 'fatwa' which had been circulating on social media ahead of the polls

In its current form, the Constitution makes up the social contract between the Pakistani state and its people. Article 25 of the Constitution states that all citizens are equal before the law and under equal protection of the law. As per Article 20(a), every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice and propagate his religion. Article 20, though, is subject to the law, public order and morality.

However, in the exercise of general elections, there are some important questions in the context of religious minorities which still require answers: What is the role of religious minorities in the political system of Pakistan, how are religious minorities part of the social contract, and what is the basis of that social contract?   

The Elections Act 2017, includes specific provisions to enhance electoral and political participation of marginalised groups, particularly women and religious minorities. In this regard, the ECP launched an inclusive media campaign for marginalised groups during elections. Section 206 of the Election Act stipulates that parties shall ensure at least five percent representation of women candidates while selecting candidates for general seats. Subsequently, political parties nominated 280 women candidates for general seats during the 2024 general elections. 

Unlike women, no provision binds political parties to ensure the representation of religious minorities in general seats. Despite that, a report by Daily Jang notes that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) nominated five candidates from religious minorities for general seats. Of these, two were nominated in Punjab, two in Sindh and one in KP. The candidates from Punjab included Sakhwat Masih, nominated for the National Assembly constituency NA-76 Narowal, and Yaqoob Naeem Gill for the provincial assembly seat of PP-115. Both candidates lost their respective seats. In PP-115, Yaqoob Naeem Gill secured 3,097 votes, around the same number of votes as his party's candidate for the corresponding National Assembly seat of NA-102 Faisalabad VIII.

In contrast, the minority candidates in Sindh won their respective elections comfortably. One candidate contested a seat for the National Assembly, while the other contested a seat for the provincial assembly. Mahesh Kumar Malani, who contested elections from NA-215 Tharpakar, comfortably won the seat with a lead of 18,715 votes in a constituency with a 67.06% turnout (among the highest voter turnouts in the country).

These minority candidates succeeded because the voters decided to vote for their candidate and to disregard a 'fatwa' which had been circulating on social media ahead of the polls, stating that votes should be cast in favour of Muslim candidates only. The alleged fatwa was originally issued by the Jamia Uloom Islamia in Karachi ahead of the 2018 general elections. It stated that "there should be satisfaction that the candidate can take better steps for the people of their constituency, both in religious and secular terms. Since the non-Muslim candidate does not meet these standards, it is recommended to vote for a Muslim candidate."

While the ECP and certain political parties, particularly the PPP, encouraged religious minorities to participate in the general elections, it does not appear that the overall political stake for religious minorities is sufficiently large, carries much weight or is widely accepted.

The state and society at large care little for religious minorities. A recent example is the police report on the Jaranwala incident, which was presented in the Supreme Court in the third week of February 2024. Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa rejected the report and expressed his displeasure over the slow progress made in the case over six months after the incident. Elections are part of the political process to solicit public opinion in running the affairs of the state. Making them more inclusive for religious minorities will help enhance their inclusion and security in society.