The Pakistanis Who Won’t Vote

For the Wall Street Journal:

Rights groups welcome Pervez Musharraf-era reforms to Pakistan’s electoral system, which helped put religious minorities on an equal footing with Muslims. But Ahmadis say they were left out, and some other religious minorities say they still don’t have adequate representation in Parliament.

“We want to be part of the mainstream, but they [the government] won’t let us. They are keeping us out of elections,” a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ahmadi community said.

Muslim extremists in Pakistan persuaded the government to pass a constitutional amendment in 1974 declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates there are at least one million Ahmadis in the country.

Ahmadis follow the teachings of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a late 19th Century reformer who they consider a prophet. Most orthodox Muslims believe there were no prophets after Prophet Muhammad.

In 1985, President Zia-ul-Haq altered the country’s election laws so that when someone registered to vote, they were put into a group based on their religion. Non-Muslim groups were given a handful of seats in Parliament and barred from voting in general elections for their districts. Ahmadis, for example, regardless of where they lived in Pakistan, could only vote to elect representatives to one of two reserved seats at the national level.

The rules left minorities without effective representation, said I.A. Rehman, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Even in districts where minorities made up a sizable chunk of the population, they were never courted by mainstream candidates because they couldn’t vote for them.

In January 2002, President Musharraf introduced a “joint electorate,” lifting the requirement to declare religion when registering to vote. Millions of Hindus and Christians in Pakistan were listed along with Muslims, and could vote in general elections.

Ahmadis could also vote in general elections, but they were listed separately to Muslims, Hindus and Christians. Also, any candidate running for office was still required to sign a document saying Ahmadis were not Muslims.

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