Pakistan’s 2024 Elections and Religious Minorities

In a surprise turn in Pakistan’s general elections, independent candidates backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the highest number of seats. This was despite the deprivation of the party’s electoral symbol, which prevented it from running as a party, and the three convictions levelled against its leader, Imran Khan, in the run-up to the elections. Khan remains in prison after an earlier corruption conviction in August 2023.

Alongside the arrests of PTI workers and leaders, these acts have been characterised domestically and internationally as pre-poll rigging comparable to the 2018 elections, but this time against the PTI rather than in its favour. Mismatches between Form 45s (vote breakdown at each polling station) and Form 47s (vote breakdown for each constituency, based on Form 45s) also suggest that there were electoral irregularities that continued during polling, leading many to call out the negative change in fortunes for independent candidates through the night. Even so, the PTI-backed independent candidates won 93, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 75, and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) gained 54 in the National Assembly election. The Electoral Commission of Pakistan (ECP) announced results for 262 out of 266 seats following the 8 February 2024 general elections.

The PML-N and PPP have formally agreed to a bid to form the federal government to appoint Shehbaz Sharif as the prime minister and Asif Ali Zardari as the president, marking what many are referring to as PDM 2.0 (Pakistan Democratic Movement). This development comes nearly three weeks after the conclusion of the elections.

A lot of issues are rightly garnering much attention at the moment, from rigging, the consequent protests and the heavy-handed response of the police to predictions about who will fill which ministerial posts, what the opposition might look like and what role Khan’s PTI will play in this. But what is missing is a consideration of what this election will mean for Pakistan’s religious minorities.

The precarious position of religious minorities is inherently tied to wider legal, economic, religious and educational challenges that Pakistan continues to face, but power struggles and poor electoral management have overshadowed all of these.

It was widely reported in the Indian media that this election saw history made with the first Hindu woman, Dr Saveera Parkash, contesting a general seat as opposed to a seat reserved for minorities. The difference between a general seat and reserved seats is that the former is contested by candidates in a first-past-the-post voting system, whereas the reserved seats are distributed according to the proportional representation of each party based on the total number of general seats won. While there appear to have not been many Hindu women who have taken this step to contest general seats, Parkash was not the first, as Hindu women contested general seats at the last elections in 2018 from Sindh. However, her efforts to inspire others to do the same, her activism and her magnanimity in the face of defeat should be respected.

Article 51 of the constitution states that 60 seats are reserved for women and 10 for minorities. After the elections, the ECP would also clarify that political parties without electoral symbols would not receive such seats. This is thus another challenge facing the PTI, which it has attempted to overcome by joining forces with the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) to secure the reserved seats, though the SIC did not submit the list of reserved seat candidates before the elections as required by the Election Act, 2017. But there has been precedent for getting around this in the past.

The lack of discussion of what the elections will mean for religious minorities mirrors the noticeable omission in the PTI’s manifesto on just this. Unlike in the PML-N and PPP manifestos, no section was dedicated to what the PTI would do for religious minorities if a PTI government was elected. This is not to say that the manifestos are the most reliable sources to predict what these elections might mean for the country, as the parties may fail to achieve or go back on their promises. However, they reflect what the parties consider important in terms of their ideology and what they consider important to their targeted demographics.

There were vague references to equality regardless of class, colour and creed as “rooted in the rich Muslim heritage of the subcontinent” in the PTI’s manifesto, but no specific policies. Some might suggest that the lack of policies is in keeping with the anti-minority sentiments and prejudices of the PTI’s leadership when in government. Or perhaps it was an accidental omission, as the wider manifesto seems to have been rather carelessly written. The PML-N’s manifesto, the only of the three biggest parties written primarily in Urdu, dedicated a section to minorities, calling for more general protections of minority rights, institutions and assets and measures to curb religious violence, persecution and conversions. However, we are left to ask what this would mean in reality.

The party with the most specific pronouncements for religious minorities was the PPP. Its manifesto states that it would revisit the articles of the constitution that dictate that the president and prime minister are to be Muslims, that it would set up a minority commission and protect minorities in line with the 2014 Supreme Court verdict, tackle sectarianism in schools and prevent the misuse of the so-called ‘blasphemy’ laws (offences relating to religion). It has been repeatedly lamented that the orders of the 2014 verdict and subsequent directives have not been implemented, and the misuse of offences relating to religion is widely conceded, so these would certainly be welcome steps.

2023 proved to be another challenging year for Pakistan’s religious minorities, and Pakistan’s new government and institutions must do what they can to address discrimination and violence against minorities. On 16 August, violence against Jaranwala’s Christian community resulted in around 70 million rupees worth of damage. Since the elections, the Supreme Court has criticised the slow and poor conduct of investigations into the incident, that it has been led by those intimidated by the offenders themselves. It has been noted again that some of the perpetrators are affiliated with Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), yet more evidence of the party’s anti-minority sentiments. Though it did not win any seats in the National Assembly, the TLP again proved its ability to influence governance last year when the PDM coalition government conceded a 12-point agreement in June. The commitment of this most recent incarnation of the PDM to religious minorities can thus be called into question in light of that agreement, particularly the PPP’s suggestion that it would prevent the misuse of religious offences.

The Ahmadiyya community is particularly vulnerable to attack by members of the TLP due to the party’s concern with upholding the finality of Prophethood (Khatam-e-Nabuwwat). The past year again saw the desecration of Ahmadi graves and places of worship. Such anti-Ahmadi sentiment is emboldened by the constitution, penal laws, and anti-Ahmadi declarations that parliament candidates are required to sign. The Senate also passed a bill to increase the punishment for using derogatory remarks against, among others, the Prophet’s (PBUH) “Companions” (section 298-A) from 3 to 10 years, which is viewed as making Shias even more vulnerable to accusations of transgressing the law because they have different criteria for who might be called “Companions” than the Sunnis. Additionally, Human Rights Watch has noted how terrorist groups, mainly Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), targeted and killed religious minorities in 2023 and how religious minority women are more vulnerable to forced conversions and marriages.

The precarious position of religious minorities is inherently tied to wider legal, economic, religious and educational challenges that Pakistan continues to face, but power struggles and poor electoral management have overshadowed all of these. The new government must ensure that those communities targeted by anti-minority violence see justice and that the authorities do not bow to pressure to respond slowly and partially to such incidents in the future. The criminal actions of the perpetrators cannot be overlooked. Otherwise, the majority will continue to consider themselves immune to the law and will be the only ones protected by it. The aspects of the law that are disproportionately weaponised against minorities, particularly offences relating to religion, should be revisited, and concerted efforts made to foster interfaith harmony through education and cooperation.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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