Civilian Election Transition in Pakistan: Will Religious Minorities Benefit?


Date:              May 18, 2013


Pakistan's election results from one week ago are in, and the ruling Pakistan People's Party of the past five years are out.  At least 60% of Pakistani citizens voted in general elections last week, despite several acts of and many threats of violence by Pakistan's Taliban and other extremists groups.  The elections, generally believed to have been free and fair, gave the majority of Parliamentary seats to the Muslim League-N and thereby returned former Nawaz Sharif from exile to his third opportunity to lead Pakistan as Prime Minister.  He was prematurely ousted during both of his prior attempts.

As good news for minorities, the election results analysis prepared by the EurAsia Review found that the more devout Islamic parties failed to gain traction in the general elections.  At least publicly, Nawaz Sharif appeared to have focused his campaign on improving economics and infrastructure and had not campaigned on religious issues.  The relatively high election turnout also somewhat contradicts a recent PEW Forum Survey finding the majority of Pakistani Muslims skeptical about whether a democratic government can solve its problems and seemingly giving preference to "a leader with a strong hand" to govern.  During his prior two stints as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif was no more heavy handed then former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had been.  His only attempt to exert himself over the military had led to the bloodless coup by former General Pervaiz Musharaf and to his nearly 14 year exile. 

Religious minorities, consisting of less than 4% of the Pakistani population, have long called for the greater protection and the abolishment of the blasphemy law from Pakistan's Penal code.  The destruction of the Christian village of Shantinager during the start of Nawaz Sharif's second term as Prime Minister in February 1997 was met with several arrests and with restitution by the government.  However, his administration made no attempt to change the blasphemy law during either of his two prior terms.  Chances of abolishment under a new term are nil. 

Last month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom again exposed the egregious acts of persecution occurring within Pakistan against minorities throughout 2012 which the weak government has been utterly unable to control or curtail.  Their Annual Report on Pakistan states, "Religious freedom violations in Pakistan rose to unprecedented levels due to chronic sectarian violence particularly targeting Shi'i Muslims. The government continues to fail to protect Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus. Pakistan's repressive blasphemy laws and anti-Ahmadi laws are widely used to violate religious freedoms and foster a climate of impunity."

Since 2002 USCIRF has recommended that the United States Department of State designate Pakistan as a "country of particular concern" or CPC, due to its inability to protect its minorities from egregious acts of religious motivated violence. Regrettably, the State Department has continually ignored this recommendation. USCIRF has declared Pakistan as "the worst situation in the world for religious freedom for countries not currently designated as 'countries of particular concern' by the U.S. government."

Designating Pakistan as a CPC would provide additional tools enabling the US government to press for reform in Pakistan. The return of Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League-N party to power should not change this recommendation.  Pakistan needs to be designated a CPC because the government fails to protect religious minority communities, even as the state of impunity continues.  Despite the fact that the hardline Islamic parties did not gain in election results, the ideology of religious extremism continues rising as illustrated by three large scale attacks on Christian communities occurring so far this year as well as by the fact that the Pakistan Taliban did attempt to disrupt the elections, thankfully unsuccessfully.

Jubilee echoes the calls of USCIRF for the State Department to declare Pakistan as a CPC and further pressure them to reform and bring perpetrators of this extremist violence to justice. 

In HIS Grace and Peace, 

Ann Buwalda, Esq.

Executive Director


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