VOTING is an emotive and long-standing issue for some eight million overseas Pakistanis scattered around 140 countries. Together, they constitute the world’s sixth largest diaspora. Not that they do not have the right to vote, as is generally presented in the media or public discourse; any Pakistani citizen who qualifies as a voter has the right to vote irrespective of his or her place of residence.
At issue is the facility to cast one’s ballot abroad instead of the national or provincial assembly constituency where the vote is registered and where ordinarily the electorate votes. This is a facility which is not available even to voters residing within Pakistan but away from their constituencies. The current election laws of Pakistan allow the facility of postal ballot only to government officers posted away from their constituencies, to their immediate family and to prisoners.
Overseas Pakistanis’ quest for voting in elections at home started initially in Britain soon after the first general election based on universal adult franchise in 1970. Besides the generally discredited general election of 1977, people had to wait for 15 years to vote in the next general election in 1985. It was at that time that the government and the election authorities started receiving requests from overseas Pakistanis for the facility to vote from abroad. Pakistani leaders including the federal ministers and the prime minister faced incessant demands from overseas Pakistanis whenever they visited countries with a sizeable Pakistani population.
The first serious effort to challenge the lack of this facility was made through a constitutional petition filed in 1993 by a young British-Pakistani law student Yasmin Khan through her counsel Akram Sheikh. A five-member bench of the Supreme Court headed by the chief justice, Nasim Hasan Shah, heard the petition and forwarded the matter to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and the government of Pakistan in November 1993 for consideration.
Since then, a number of committees of the federal government and the ECP have examined the issue from various angles. In the meantime, two almost identical constitutional petitions were filed before the Supreme Court in 2011. One of the petitions was filed by PTI chairman Imran Khan seeking court directions for the government and the ECP to make arrangements enabling overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right of franchise. The Supreme Court in its judgement of April 29, 2013 disposed of both petitions with the observation that “… let the ECP make all possible efforts to achieve the object … so the expatriates may also participate in the forthcoming general elections …”.
The challenges of out-of-country voting are formidable in the case of a country as large as Pakistan.
Since the next general election was already scheduled for May 11, 2013, it was not realistic to expect arrangements to be made for overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes in their countries of residence. However, the government promulgated the Electoral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013 on May 9, 2013, which, though a mere formality performed just two days ahead of the general election, was the first law on the statute books to provide for the facility of out-of-country voting to overseas Pakistanis and to allow them to cast their votes in Pakistani embassies, high commissions and consulates abroad. The ordinance not only remained unimplemented but was also allowed to lapse in September 2013 as the incoming government chose not to pass it as an act of parliament.
Another attempt to legislate on the out-of-country voting facility for overseas Pakistanis has been made from the platform of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms headed by Senator Ishaq Dar. The draft elections bill, 2017, carries a provision for voting by overseas Pakistanis but leaves the time frame and extent of its implementation to the ECP. Although a sub-committee headed by Arif Alvi of the PTI examined the subject of out-of-country voting in depth, the deliberations have not resulted in a tangible arrangement for such voting for overseas Pakistanis.
Why has this dream not materialised in Pakistan even after the lapse of a quarter of a century and despite repeated observations and orders of the judiciary, extensive deliberations of the legislature and serious efforts by the ECP assisted by ministries for foreign affairs and overseas Pakistanis?
The fact of the matter is that out-of-country voting is a complex issue. The Sweden-based prestigious International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance has compiled a comprehensive handbook on Voting from Abroad which concedes that “...external voting operations are complex and pose considerable challenges”. These challenges become hugely formidable in the case of a country as large and complex as Pakistan.
A lingering distrust of the electoral system further complicates the quest for voting from abroad. As desired by the sub-committee on out-of-country voting under the parliamentary committee on poll reforms, the ECP commissioned an independent feasibility study in 2016 with the help of UNDP. The first of the two findings of the study states that “given the size and dispersal of the Pakistani diaspora, coupled with the limited official resources available in-country and abroad, any significant in-person voting operation would be expensive and logistically challenging”. The second finding is even more profound: “We find that any remote voting solution using currently available technology — whether postal, internet, telephone, or proxy — will lack the necessary electoral integrity checks to preserve the credibility of an election result.”
Given the prevailing weak trust in our electoral system, further overloading the ECP with such a complex operation as out-of-country voting will not be wise. We are already late where the 2018 general election is concerned, as the legal framework has not yet been passed by parliament. Sadly, overseas Pakistanis will have to wait beyond the next elections to cast their vote from their place of residence abroad.
The writer is president of Pildat, a Pakistani public policy think tank.
Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2017