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Joint electorate? Not quite

DAWN - the Internet Edition


17 September 2002
Tuesday
09 Rajab 1423

Opinion

Joint electorate? Not quite

By I. A. Rehman

The restoration of joint electorate after a lapse of 25 years has not been without problems. Many among the beneficiaries of a single electoral list wish a few of the profitable aspects of separate electorates had been retained.

It has been learnt from official sources that in the regime's view the Ahmadis will suffer no discrimination in terms of polling and candidacy - they can vote for a candidate for a general seat and also contest such seats. A small concession was made to clerics to avoid delay in election. That explanation does not satisfy the Ahmadiya community and they have declared that if their status as voters has not changed, their decision to stay away from the polls also remains unchanged.

For many others the joy at the change was extremely short-lived. Above all, the powers that be do not seem to be aware of their obligations under the system of joint electorate.

The system of separate electorates, against which a large number of citizens had agitated for years, describing it as the root cause of a dangerous division of the people and a whole regime of discrimination on the grounds of belief, was done away with on February 27, 2002.

The axe fell on it in the form of a 22-word sentence placed as section 7 in the Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002: “The elections for the members of the National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies shall be held on the basis of joint electorate.” A number of consequential steps became imperative. The separate lists of voters belonging to different denominations had to be scrapped and a single list of all voters regardless of belief prepared.

It became possible for a Joseph Francis to see his name on the electoral list preceded and followed by a Muslim name. Some were so overjoyed at the change that they trudged to the polling stations on April 30 to say yes to the question posed in the referendum. Since this event did not require any voters' list, every voter believed that he was on a single common roll.

The belief was not unfounded. Earlier, on April 2, the Election Commission, under the signatures of all five of its members, had issued a directive prescribing Form 4 for the registration of both Muslim and non-Muslim voters. The form did not require anyone applying for his name's inclusion in the voters' list to mention his religion. The forms prescribed under the Electoral Rolls rules of 1974 and used in the past five elections became obsolete. There was no room for creating a separate roll for non-Muslims.

The situation changed suddenly on June 17, 2002, with the promulgation of the Conduct of General Elections (Second Amendment) Order. It inserted sections 7-B and 7-C into the original order and authority's commitment to joint electorate was gravely compromised.

Section 7-B is a classic exercise in inanity. Its heading says: “Status of Ahmadis etc. to remain unchanged.” (The use of ‘etc’ is unnecessary as nobody other than Ahmadis is mentioned in the whole paragraph) What it says is simply this: Notwithstanding Section 7 of the Conduct of General Elections Order, under which joint electorate had been revived, the status of Ahmadis “shall remain the same as provided in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan”, that is, they will continue to be treated as non-Muslims. That, however, was never an issue during the preparation of a single voters' list.

Section 7-C says that if anybody complains to the Revising Authority that a person who “has got himself enrolled as a voter” (there is no reference here to enrolment as a Muslim voter) is not a Muslim, that person will be required to state his “belief regarding the finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him).” In case this person refuses to sign a declaration on this point or fails to appear before the Authority, “he shall be deemed to be a non-Muslim and his name shall be deleted from the joint electoral rolls and added to a supplementary list of voters in the same electoral area as non-Muslim.”

Somewhat cleverly this order does not refer to a non-Muslim voters' list, and only mentions a ‘supplementary list of voters’. However, the meaning is clear.

As a result of this amendment, we now have a list of voters in which there is no column for religion and only the heading says: “Final electoral list for non-Muslim under article (sic) 7-C of the order for elections 2002.”

It has been learnt from official sources that in the regime's view the Ahmadis will suffer no discrimination in terms of polling and candidacy - they can vote for a candidate for a general seat and also contest such seats. A small concession was made to clerics to avoid delay in election. That explanation does not satisfy the Ahmadiya community and they have declared that if their status as voters has not changed, their decision to stay away from the polls also remains unchanged.

Regardless of what the Ahmadis say or do, it is a fact that legislation is often judged not by what it says in general terms but by what it excludes or exempts. The moment a separate list of non-Muslim voters is prepared, however small it may be, a serious deviation from the principle of joint electorate takes place. This keeps the division of citizens in political matters in place, which is precisely what the system of joint electorate seeks to abolish. It will also obstruct the minorities' return to mainstream politics.

Similar to the effect of Sec 7-C of the election order is the implication of the oath each candidate is required to take.

This declaration has three sections. The first affirms the nominee's consent to be a candidature, and includes a declaration that he suffers from no disqualification. The second section requires the candidate to swear loyalty to the Quaid's declaration and to Pakistan and includes a pledge “to preserve Islamic ideology which is the basis for the creation of Pakistan.” It also requires the nominee to distinguish himself from Ahmadis. The third section includes declarations that the nominee is not a defaulter.

Everything in this oath except for the first section is unnecessary, to say the least. When a person says that he does not attract any of the disqualification provisions, which are all inscribed in the Constitution, the LFO, and the Election Order, the third section becomes redundant. As for preservation of the ‘Islamic ideology which is the basis for the creation of Pakistan,’ this expression, coined by Gen Ziaul Haq, is contrary to historical evidence and hence does not enjoy unanimous support in the country.

A fresh oath to deny one's being an Ahmadi is unnecessary because every Muslim holder of an Identity Card has made this oath (and every Muslim passport holder, too) and nobody can be a candidate without possessing an Identity Card. How many times in a single and short lifetime is a person required to declare his faith?

It is true that this oath is not a new innovation; it has been prescribed for candidates for over a decade. The question is whether this form should have survived the restoration of joint electorate. Again a problem has been unnecessarily created by having three proformas for candidates' oath - one for candidates for general seats, another for candidates for non-Muslims' special seats, and a third for candidates for women's reserved seats.

A lot of botheration and some paper could have been saved by prescribing a single oath for all categories of candidates and limiting it to the first section of the present text.

© The DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2000
Source: www.dawn.com/2002/09/17/op.htm#4
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