ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 7 (UPI Next) -- Few non-Muslims are running in Pakistan's planned May 11 election, a practice critics say reinforces non-Muslims' status as a poor underclass in this predominantly Muslim country.
Pakistan's major parties are ignoring Christians, Hindus and other minorities as potential candidates -- neither the ruling Pakistan People's Party of slain ex-leader Benazir Bhutto, nor its rival, the Pakistan Muslim League, the party of former premier Nawaz Sharif, have non-Muslims on their national parliamentary tickets.
There are non-Muslim candidates, but they are concentrated outside these two parties.
Ironically the country's largest religious party Jamaat-i-Islami, considered far more conservative than the supposedly secular Pakistan People's Party and Pakistan Muslim League, is running one non-Muslim candidate. In addition, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, considered the party most sympathetic toward non-Muslims, has one Christian running for a seat in the southern commercial hub of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city.
Meanwhile, the Karachi-centered Muttahida Qaumi Movement party, whose leader, Altaf Hussein, is in exile in London, has outdone all other parties by nominating non-Muslims for 26 national and provincial legislature seats.
"Our party doesn't believe in the term 'minority'. All party workers are treated equally regardless of their religion, caste or creed," Wasay Jalil, a member of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement's Central Information Committee, said.
No non-Muslim has ever held a general parliamentary seat in Pakistan's 66-year history.
Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf spokeswoman Shireen Mazari said Pakistan has a long way to go to make non-Muslims part of electoral politics.
She termed non-Muslims "our brothers and sisters," saying, "We are here to stand by them through thick and thin."
Electoral politics, though, "is quite a different thing," which is why the party has only nominated one Christian candidate, she said.
Naila Joseph Dayal, a Christian running as an independent candidate for the National Assembly, the lower house of Pakistan's parliament, said discrimination against non-Muslims is keeping them from voting.
"The political parties fear a backlash from religious extremists if they award (election) tickets to minority candidates for general seats," Dayal said, referring to the process of selecting candidates.
"No political party has the courage to speak against religious fundamentalists. I'm contesting the election just to record my protest against all mainstream political parties," said Dayal, who heads the Christian Progressive Movement.
More than 95 percent of Pakistan's 193 million people are Muslims, according to the CIA's World Factbook. The 3.5 percent who follow other faiths include Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, Bahais, and Parsis. The figure also includes Ahmadis, members of a minority Islamic sect considered heretics by Pakistan's majority and labeled non-Muslim on electoral identification cards.
An April Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report said non-Muslims "are treated as second-class citizens," a contention backed up by Ashfaq Hassan Khan, a columnist and economics professor at Islamabad's National University of Sciences and Technology Business School.
Officials, he said, "do nothing to raise the education and economic standards of minorities." In addition, they fail to consider minority groups when drafting economic and education policies, he said.
Ten seats in the s 342-seat National Assembly have been reserved for non-Muslim minorities since 2002, with another 60 reserved for women.
Parties appoint candidates to the reserved seats after each election in proportion to the number of seats they hold in the parliament. From 2002 to 2007, six Christians, three Hindus and one Sikh held the reserved seats, while eight Hindus and two Christians have held the minority seats since 2008 in the outgoing parliament.
Although lawmakers in reserved seats have the same authority as elected members, they largely remain at the mercy of the parties that appointed them, which has opened the system to criticism.
Raza Rumi, director of the Jinnah Institute policy think tank in Islamabad, said the minority seats reflect tokenism and are ineffectual.
"Stringent legislation in favor of the minorities is the only solution," he said, which can only be achieved "if political parties award them tickets for general seats."
Hindu human rights activist Kapil Dev was also critical.
He said candidates appointed to reserved seats "are not our real representatives as they don't get a vote from us."
"They just serve the interests of their respective parties," he added.
Dev said a dual electoral system, catering separately to Muslims and non-Muslims, is needed "to protect minorities from persecution."
Ahmadis, however, have objected to being covered by a separate electoral system and rejected a separate electoral list as discrimination.
Most Ahmadis have boycotted past elections in protest of being declared non-Muslims, and Ahmadi leaders have said taking part in the polls would be an acceptance of the designation. There are 115,966 Ahmadis on Pakistan's officially non-Muslim voter rolls.
Under-representation of minorities has hurt efforts to draft laws in their favor, Paul Bhatti, a Christian and a former minister for minority affairs, said.
"No legislation has been made in the last five years to prevent persecution against the minorities despite my utmost efforts," he told UPI Next.
Bhatti's brother Shahbaz, Pakistan's first minister for minority affairs, and Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, were assassinated in 2011 for campaigning to overhaul blasphemy laws, which are commonly misused to persecute non-Muslims.