The upcoming U.S. midterms have brought renewed scrutiny to the practice of gerrymandering in the United States. But the practice of drawing legislative districts to entrench political elites and disenfranchise others has advanced to an extreme degree in other countries as well — like Pakistan.
In the provincial assembly of Balochistan, in the southwest corner of Pakistan, only 544 voters elected the last chief minister. Yet in two neighborhoods, 80,000 voters might not be able to elect even one representative to the same assembly.
There are two factors to explain this huge disparity in the provincial elections in this region. The first is ethnic. Those 80,000 voters are Hazaras, Pakistan’s most persecuted ethnic minority community.
The second reason is gerrymandering, the mechanism by which the ruling elite maintain and consolidate their position.
When the provincial assembly of Balochistan first started in 1972, the provincial capital of Quetta was allocated four general seats. Hazaras managed to consistently elect at least one representative in all subsequent elections, with the exception of that first one. That fairly reflects their share of the population strength: about 20-25 percent of Quetta’s residents. After the 1998 census, Quetta’s seats were extended to six, but the Hazara still managed at least one representative.
That changed last year, after the latest census. Incumbent political parties manipulated the boundaries of electoral constituencies to such an extent that the Hazara might lose all representation in the assembly. As baffling as it may sound, the last chief minister of Balochistan, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, won his position with only 544 votes because he represented a rural area where many people boycott elections because of the security situation. By contrast, the Shia Hazaras — 80,000 registered voters concentrated in two neighborhoods only 10 kilometers apart — may not get any seats at all in the provincial assembly (though they continue to be represented at the municipal level).
Gerrymandering is a political tactic practiced by incumbent governments to manipulate electoral constituencies to win more seats than their rival political groups. This controversial political practice, which manipulates legal loopholes, is common worldwide. Its use in Pakistan comes at a particularly important moment, with national elections coming up at the end of July.
Pakistan stands at a crossroads. This key U.S. ally can take its nascent democracy one step further if it successfully transfers legislative and executive powers from one civilian government to another for only the second time. Or it can lose what little it has achieved during the last 10 years of civilian rule. The Pakistani military stands ready behind the scenes to intervene, but a more subtle challenge for Pakistani democracy is how it accommodates ethnic and religious diversity. The gerrymandering in Balochistan is a litmus test of the health of Pakistan’s pluralism.
Pakistan’s Most Persecuted Minority
In Sunni-majority Pakistan, the Shia Hazara community is an ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian minority — and one of the country’s most persecuted communities. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, more than 500 Hazara community members were killed between 2008 and 2013. Extremist militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which see Shia Hazaras as infidels, have claimed most of these attacks. The National Commission of Human Rights, the Pakistani government’s human-rights monitoring body, confirms that 509 Shia Hazaras were killed over the last five years.
Pakistani Hazaras came to Quetta 130 years ago in an attempt to escape massacres in the late 1880s and 1890s at the hands of Kabul’s Amir Abdur Rahman regime. Having lost their lands in Afghanistan, the Hazaras served British forces as laborers and soldiers until the independent states of Pakistan and India emerged in 1947.
Hazaras did relatively well in health, education, services, and small businesses until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Pakistani jihadists had gone to Afghanistan in the thousands to help the Taliban during the 1990s. After the American invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11, these jihadists returned to Pakistan and unleashed havoc on the tiny Hazara community.
Half a million strong, the Hazara community today lives primarily in the two ghettos of Hazara Town and Marriabad in the multicultural provincial capital of Quetta. Suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Hazaras. The community has been caught up in the sharpening Sunni-Shia divide in the region as well as the internecine struggles within Pakistan itself.
Consolidating Power, De-consolidating Democracy
Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province in landmass, lies in the country’s southwest, bordering Iran, India, and Afghanistan. The principal ethnic groups are the Balochs and the Pashtuns.
After the 2017 census, the coalition government gerrymandered the electoral constituencies for the benefit of its member parties, including the Pashtun nationalist party. The Hazara Democratic Party (HDP) challenged these new constituencies at the Elections Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and forced a redrawing of the boundaries. The Balochistan High Court reversed this verdict, but the HDP has taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Citing insufficient time, since Pakistan is within two months of the general elections, the highest court upheld the HDP’s complaint.
For now, the Hazara community has won its legal battle. But for Pakistan’s democracy to be inclusive and fair, it will have to be better prepared for questions around the representation of all minorities.
Democracy has critically evolved from the rule of the majority to a more refined civil process that strives to involve all minorities in public decision-making. Today, democracy is as much about inclusivity as about majority rule. For everyone in society to reap the fruits of democracy, they need to protect and encourage the active participation and representation of minority groups in the democratic process. Pakistani democracy is yet to be consolidated, so it particularly needs equity across its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversities. It cannot afford to backpedal by silencing a vocal democratic entity that also happens to represent its most persecuted group.
Public scholar Ayesha Siddiqa has coined the term “hybrid democracy” to describe how the Pakistani military gets what it wants without actually dirtying its hands through military coups. Neither of the last two civilian governments has managed to complete its tenure under the leadership of a single prime minister. Both Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) were judicially disqualified under controversial circumstances. In Pakistan, the judiciary has a history of twisting the arms of the elected civilian governments at the behest of the military authorities. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s ouster and subsequent death sentence under General Zia-ul Haq is an obvious example.
Political analyst Moeed Yusuf argues that Pakistan deviates from the trajectory of democracy consolidation. As a result, uncertainty and unpredictability surround the country as it heads toward its second successive democratic transition. For Pakistani democracy to mature, it needs to empower public power centers as an alternative to military institutions. With the current political system plagued with patriarchy and patronage, the weaker sections of society in particular don’t see an opportunity to participate.
Gerrymandering is one way the powerful have continued to disenfranchise the weaker. Pakistan has already paid a heavy price for the infamous gerrymandering in 1958 when Pakistan’s first dictator, Ayub Khan, collapsed four provinces in the West Pakistan into a single unit, which ultimately led to the secession of Bangladesh in 1971. If nothing in this political equation changes, the upcoming election is bound to produce more of the same: a hybrid democracy where the military continues to call the shots behind the scenes.