Lawmakers’ nationality

28 Jul 2019

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DUAL nationality can be a tricky issue when it comes to the right to stand for election, inevitably bringing up questions of divided loyalties and conflict of interest.

Read: Proposal to let dual nationals contest elections

Perhaps buoyed by US-based Pakistanis’ enthusiastic reception of Prime Minister Imran Khan during his trip to America, the government has decided to extend dual nationals the right to contest elections in this country. The cabinet has set up a high-powered committee to chalk out a roadmap for the purpose. To translate the proposal into reality, a constitutional amendment will be needed: Article 63 (1)(c) holds that a person acquiring the citizenship of a foreign state is ineligible for election to parliament.

A comprehensive debate is also in order. This is an emotive issue due to historical and cultural contexts peculiar to Pakistan, and its pros and cons must be carefully weighed by parliament.

The prime minister has often expressed his faith in overseas Pakistanis’ capacity to contribute to the country’s progress, specifically its economy. In recent years, the issue of dual nationals in public office has cropped up several times, with public and legal opinions tending towards a narrow — some would say too narrow — interpretation of the above-cited constitutional bar.

In December last year, for instance, the Supreme Court ordered the federal and provincial governments to set a deadline for bureaucrats with dual nationalities to either give up their foreign citizenship or lose their jobs. The apex court held that such individuals employed in the service of Pakistan are a threat to the country’s interests. Such an outlook can be criticised as erring too greatly on the side of caution.

Read: SC bars govt officials from holding dual nationality

The opposing point of view holds that most overseas Pakistanis retain strong ties with their country of origin and should be given the chance to participate fully in its political process. One could also posit that, sad to say, among these immigrants are many of our best and brightest, and were they legally allowed to stand for election, they could add to the quality of representation of the Pakistani people. Nevertheless, if the PTI government’s proposal does materialise, perhaps an exception could be made in the case of cabinet ministers who are bound by an oath of secrecy.

On overseas Pakistanis being able to exercise their right of franchise, however, there is across-the-board consensus and a legal provision in the Elections Act, 2017. The hurdle lies in devising a system that ensures efficacy, security and secrecy. Although the e-voting pilot project undertaken by the ECP under pressure from the Supreme Court in by-elections last year went smoothly, the response was extremely tepid. Of the overseas Pakistanis eligible to vote in the constituencies where the by-polls were being held, only a little over 1pc registered to cast their ballot. And from among these, on polling day itself, 15pc did not exercise their right of franchise.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2019