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Overseas Pakistanis: Left out in the cold

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.

Desperate for change

Once considered an outcast on the political landscape, PTI has shown in recent weeks that it is in a strong position to lure votes away from Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz. Many Pakistanis have become supporters of the rookie political party and consider it to be the only choice come Election Day. And Pakistanis who live overseas are no exception.

“The only hope for Pakistan is Imran Khan who for all intents and purposes must be tried. We all must support this party. We badly need a change,” says Faizan in Markham, Canada.

Abid in Mississauga concurs: “Imran Khan is saying everything that the country and people need such as grassroots empowerment, local government rule, no discretionary funds for assembly members, no drone attacks and so on. PTI's manifesto more or less says what the country needs.”

Some are not so convinced. Yasir in Dubai puts it bluntly: “Why should we buy into a good-looking former cricket captain who has no track record of government administration?”

While Tazeen in Mississauga says she personally feels “Imran Khan needs more time to work on his leadership qualities. If he is elected by the majority vote then it'll be out of majboori. He would just be someone who benefited from the current level of voter dissatisfaction.”

The majority, however, is desperate for change and despite having some reservations is willing to give Khan’s party a chance:

Zehra in New York says “PTI is the only political party which gives Pakistan any hope for a better tomorrow. There are reservations about the party, regarding for example their stance on Ahmedis. But we want change and not more of the same, such as PPP, MQM and PML-N.”

Yadullah in Toronto says “I don't see Imran Khan as the great Messiah, but his party has already broadened the pool of people participating in the elections and has forced other parties to wake up from their states of complacency. For all his flaws and conservatism, he has energised many who had lost hope. In a country that often times seems hopeless, that's a step forward.”

Adnan in Minneapolis admits: “I'm not a PTI supporter per se but if I had the opportunity to vote, I would give Imran Khan a chance, even though I have major reservations regarding his stance towards the Taliban. We've tried everyone else. The people just want to give someone else a shot.”

Wish list

 As to what overseas Pakistanis expect from the new elected government, their wish list is pretty much in line with that of the rest of Pakistan.

“I'm not looking for incredible changes, just the provision of basic rights to citizens so that food and water aren't a privilege but a part of daily life,” says Hina.

Zehra says she wants “a Pakistan which is free of American control and where a large part of the budget is allocated to education; most importantly, where there is patriotism and we are proud to call ourselves Pakistani; where minorities can live freely and we never ever see an army general as the head of state again.”

Urooj says she “would like to see more accountability. Laws are in place, but not implemented. Be it a minister or a common man, the law must treat them equally.”

Yasir says “we really need to get rid of the feudals once and for all. That will be enough of a change in this generation. Everything else will sort itself out.”

And last but not least, Adnan reminds that “future elected leaders should definitely look into implementing a process for overseas Pakistanis to vote. After all, many of them contribute a large chunk of the foreign exchange that comes into Pakistan”.

All said and done, “I think what is supreme is that these elections be fair”, says Turan in Oakville.

To read more about the voting aspirations of Pakistanis living in New York, click here.

Saima S. Hussain lives in Toronto. She is a former editor of Dawn’s “Books & Authors” magazine and author of “The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations, and Amazing Facts” (Annick Press, 2013).