ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court was informed on Monday that a software system for the exercise of vote by overseas Pakistanis in the forthcoming general elections would be ready in the next 10 weeks.

Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) Secretary Babar Yaqoob Fateh Mohammad and National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) Chairman Usman Yousuf Mobeen said that after serious deliberations a positive progress had been made and that after the development of the software, mock exercises would also be conducted to ensure an error-free voting system for Pakistani expatriates.

“Time has come that this gift of exercising right of franchise should be given now to the overseas Pakistanis,” observed Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar.

A three-judge SC bench headed by the chief justice had taken up a set of petitions moved by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan and a group of citizens on behalf of Solicitor Mohammad Dawood Ghazanvi, Farhat Javed and others pleading that denial of right to participate in the democratic process by the overseas Pakistanis would mean a refusal by the government to fulfil its constitutional obligation.

CJ wonders whether ex-envoy Haqqani, who left country without facing Memogate trial, will also get voting right

During the hearing, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, a member of the bench, stressed the need for developing a questionnaire and incorporating it into the software in such a way that commitment to the country by Pakistani expatriates was also solicited. The reason behind the suggestion, he explained, was that although the expatriates still had their hearts in Pakistan, there were many who had no stakes in the country and eventually become tools in the hands of others.

This observation instantly reminded the chief justice about the former Pakistani ambassador to United States, Hussain Haqqani, and he asked about the latter’s whereabouts. “Should we also give him the right to vote when he left the country leaving halfway a 2012 case against him (Memogate),” the chief justice wondered. “Why should not the Supreme Court issue a notice to Haqqani to come and face the trial in Pakistan?”

The ECP secretary informed the court that the commission was in contact with Nadra and a set of questions to be incorporated into the software had been prepared in such a way that the programme could not be hacked or fraud committed.

About financial aspect of the plan, he said funds were not an issue since the government had been generous, but the Constitution required the ECP to adopt such a process which should not be compromised in any manner and that no finger was pointed at it. The commission also planned to arrange a mock exercise in one or two constituencies to check effectiveness of the software, the secretary added.

The Nadra chairman also told the court that a meeting had been called in April this year inviting all stakeholders, including academicians, to seek their assistance in the development of the software.

The chief justice observed that the overseas Pakistanis had a lot of love for the country and they “know about Pakistan more than us”, and suggested the name of IT expert Salman Akhtar from Lahore for a third party technical evaluation of the programme.

During the proceedings, Advocate Faisal Hussain Chaudhry, representing the PTI, said he had contacted former Nadra chairman Tariq Malik who told him that the authority had developed similar software which had been demonstrated in the courtroom in 2012 for the right of vote to the overseas Pakistanis.

But an expert from Nadra claimed that he had developed the programme, but it was not feasible because the expatriates had to come to Pakistani embassies or high commissions around the world.

The chief justice again questioned the PTI’s role in parliament when Section 94 of the Elections Act 2017 concerning the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis had been taken up, and said the party always claimed that it enjoyed the support of the expatriates.

At this, PTI leader Arif Alvi explained that the government had taken out that clause from the Elections Act as a result of which the party had boycotted the legislation process.

The chief justice observed that no chance could be taken because there was no room for any mistake in the exercise of voting for overseas Pakistanis. “The destiny of a country can be changed only by imparting education and knowledge among its citizens, quality of leadership and rule of law,” he observed.

The court postponed the hearing for a month so that efforts could be made to address issues, if any, cropped up during the running of the programme.

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2018