On May 11, voters across the country will head to their respective polling stations for what have become the most hotly contested parliamentary elections in recent history – and for the first time the contest is not between two major parties but three.
Unfortunately for registered Pakistani voters who live abroad, and whose numbers range from 3.7 to 4.5 million, we will not participate in this important decision. This is because the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) insists that the electronic software which would allow us to vote is simply not in place.
This is strange because the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) is adamant that the e-voting system it was mandated to prepare is ready. It was all done kind of last minute, but is ready nonetheless. Under this system, a voter who showed his/her National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (Nicop) and machine-readable Pakistani passport would have been able to vote online at the Pakistani embassy/consulate in his/her respective city.
The ministry of finance and the overseas Pakistanis’ ministry also indicated their readiness, while the ministry of foreign affairs confirmed it had sought and received permission from various countries to conduct polling, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Canada and the United Kingdom.
But the caretaker government announced that the whole process was simply too big to be carried out. With an estimated 1.7 million Pakistanis living in Saudi Arabia, 1.3 million in the UAE, 367,988 in the UK, 131,589 in the US, 93,345 in Kuwait, 90,148 in Canada, 80,166 in Bahrain, and 71,874 in Qatar, it would surely be a logistics nightmare.
Don’t tell the Egyptians that. One of the reasons their presidential election last year was lauded as historic was that it provided six to eight million expatriates living in Europe, North America, and the Middle East the opportunity to participate in the first free elections of that country since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
Yet, naysayers continue to argue against the overseas vote. Attorney General Irfan Qadir suggested that the ECP was not obliged to provide the facility to vote outside Pakistani territory. This implies that citizens who wish to vote should return to the country in time to cast their ballot. This is interesting, because last year the ECP granted overseas Pakistanis the right to vote and announced that their names would be included in the preliminary electoral rolls. Surely it did not expect them to return en masse in order to exercise that right.
ECP’s Khurshid Alam argued that for Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, voting would require permission from a kingdom that does not hold elections. “Why would they allow a democratic process [in their country] for other citizens when they don’t allow it for their own citizens?” Probably for the same reason that they allowed 300,000 Filipinos to participate in Overseas Absentee-Voting (OAV) last year. And gave the go-ahead for Pakistanis to do the same.
Jeddah resident Sajjad says: “I personally know people from the Philippines who took half a day off from work to go and vote in their last elections. Now I'm envying them. As an overseas Pakistani I do expect to have a say in how my country is run and the inability to vote has completely divorced me from the democratic process. As the largest source of funds for the Pakistani treasury, I expect some representation, however ineffective or minute it may be.”
Urooj in Edmonton, Canada feels the same: “Overseas Pakistanis should get the chance to vote as a lot of them long to go back to Pakistan like they did during the Musharraf era and take investment with them if they see hope for the future.”
As does Hina in Milton, Canada: “If the Pakistan government does not object to dual citizenship, it should honour the rights of citizens abroad by allowing them to be part of the decision-making process.”
Caretaker Information Technology Minister Dr Sania Nishtar suggested that “something like a postal ballot system or some other thing” may be made available to overseas Pakistanis. But at the time of writing, according to the ECP website, this facility is still available “only to persons in government service, members of the armed forces, holders of public offices, their wives and such of their children as are registered voters.”
Why the hesitation? Is it due to concerns regarding transparency of the electoral process? Or is the concern to do with the political impact of overseas votes? According to the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, there are on average 7,000 overseas Pakistani voters in each of the 272 National Assembly constituencies. This is a significant number and the general consensus is that the major beneficiary of overseas votes would be the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf.
This is probably why Imran Khan has been most vociferous in demanding that Pakistanis abroad be allowed to participate in the electoral process. It was Khan who in 2011 filed a petition in the Supreme Court concerning the matter, and since then has repeatedly appealed for it to ensure a positive outcome. A three-judge panel headed by the chief justice declared that there was no need for legislation to give voting rights to overseas Pakistanis and ordered the ECP to facilitate their participation.