ENSURING that women are not restrained from casting their ballot and giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote are both crucial matters. But while the Election Commission of Pakistan has approved a draft law meant to counter women’s disenfranchisement in the name of ‘tradition,’ coming up with a workable system that would enable Pakistanis abroad to vote may take some time. The draft bill calls for a re-poll in areas where less than 10 per cent of registered women’s votes have been polled. Women have been denied their constitutional right to vote in many areas across Pakistan. And this regressive practice has been endorsed by both religious and mainstream liberal parties — jointly in some cases. In fact, the ECP’s decision has already attracted criticism from some political quarters. Hence while even the 10 per cent threshold is low, it would be a major achievement for progressive forces in parliament to get the bill passed and, more importantly, to have the law enforced to dilute the influence of obscurant forces over Pakistan’s political system. Besides, the ECP’s step would also put pressure on all political parties to attract the women’s vote, changing the dynamics in many constituencies.
While enacting the women’s enfranchisement law is something that can be done relatively quickly, the question of how to enable Pakistani expatriates to vote is a trickier one, as has been reflected by the ECP’s own indecisiveness. The two options on the table are either setting up polling stations in Pakistani missions abroad or allowing postal ballots. There are issues with both methods, as in the Gulf states, where millions of Pakistanis work, political activities are frowned upon. The main issue with postal ballots is that after the publication of the final list of candidates there will not be enough time to cast the vote. However, a postal ballot system does exist for government officials and armed forces personnel.
It is important to bring overseas Pakistanis, who contribute significantly to the economy through remittances, into the voting process. The major issue is how the mechanics of the exercise can be managed, and at this stage, it is unlikely that expatriates would be able to vote in the next election. This has been indicated by political parties meeting with the chief election commissioner yesterday. While that would be disappointing, practicalities must be kept in mind to avoid problems. In the meantime, the matter should be debated by political parties, civil society and representatives of overseas Pakistanis so that a solution can be found. The process of how developed democracies allow their citizens living abroad to vote should also be studied.