Local Governments and Religious Minorities

In Pakistan, citizen's rights to elected local governments and non-Muslim Pakistanis' rights to be seen as equal citizens both remain challenges. Therefore, the question of the participation of non-Muslims in local governments becomes twice as complicated.

After judicial intervention, the four provincial governments, helped by federal institutions including the Election Commission of Pakistan, are now holding elections after passing new local government laws in accordance with the Constitution. The three bigger provinces have been beaten to the chase by Balochistan, which was able to conduct local government elections in very difficult circumstances and amidst a law and order breakdown in many of its remote areas.

As far as the inclusion and participation of religious minorities in local government elections and, consequently, the operation of local bodies is concerned, different parts of the country have different circumstances offering diverse challenges and opportunities.

Minorities live in fear and their participation is checked due to inadequate legal frameworks, and the practices of social exclusion and economic marginalisation. There are Union Councils which are clearly dominated by non- Muslim populations, but we see Muslims being elected in larger numbers there as well. The allocation of a quota of seats for minorities has both pros and cons. It is useful in places where non-Muslims are in a minority. However, it becomes a problem where they are in the majority because the groups and political parties fielding candidates in these Union Councils are dominated nationally and provincially by Muslims. In such cases, it can be useful if the Muslims can also vote for the minority candidates. This will help mainstream the minority candidates in local politics in the beginning, and eventually at the provincial and national levels.

Local governments provide religious minorities a better chance to make decisions that affect their daily lives at the grassroots level, while also providing a nursery for future higher level political leadership. Non-Muslims have far greater opportunities in local governments than the provincial or national governments at this stage of Pakistan's social and political development. However, it can only happen if the policy makers understand the issue and allow non-Muslims full representation in areas where they constitute a majority by making requisite changes in the law and procedures and making it mandatory for the local political groups and mainstream political parties to award tickets according to each area's population.

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