Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Some nine years ago when, I was heading the media department of a British organisation, I got the chance to observe how most British expats in Pakistan voted in the UK 2010 parliamentary elections. Even though most of the Karachi-based British expats that I managed to talk to in this regard were somewhat reluctant to divulge which party they voted for, some eventually did tell.

Nine out of the 12 expats who agreed to reveal the party that they voted for, cast their votes for the Conservative Party. Two voted for the Liberal Democrats and just one claimed to have voted for the Labour Party. Two of them told me that, since the early 1980s, a majority of British expats around the world have preferred to vote for the Conservative Party. British expats have the right to vote in their country’s parliamentary elections, but this right lapses if the expat has remained resident outside the UK for more than 15 years.

Last year in Washington DC, during a round-table session that I attended on the electoral behaviour of expat Americans, most speakers were of the view that a majority of expat Americans tend to vote for the Republican Party. No significant data was shared to corroborate this, but some former US ambassadors attending the session claimed that most expat Americans working in Asian and South American countries vote for the Republican Party and that this has been the trend since 1980.

The session concluded that expats — at least American and British — were likely to vote for conservative parties. This is interesting, because over the last few years, there have been many reports published and columns written about expat Pakistanis and Indians overwhelmingly exhibiting support for centre-right parties such as the PTI and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Indian expats were given the right to vote in Indian elections only in 2010, but those holding dual nationalities still cannot. Pakistani expats were given this right in October 2018, during the by-elections. Whereas 7,461 expats registered online to vote, only 6,233 cast their votes.

Are Pakistani expatriates far removed from the changing reality of domestic politics?

The phenomenon of most Indian and Pakistani expats demonstrating support for the BJP and the PTI has been repeatedly observed by many, but never fully studied. The answers may lie in a hefty study published in the May 2019 issue of the Oxford Academic Journal.

The study conducted by two American political scientists, A.C. Goldberg and Simon Lanz, concentrated largely on European countries. But Goldberg and Lanz argue that the results of the study can be relevant for other countries as well. One of their conclusions was that the voting/support preferences of expats are often contrary to those at home.

This is because their social, political and economic contexts are different. An issue in the country of origin will have a more abstract impact on expats residing in a different environment, hundreds or thousands of miles away. The impact of the same issue on those living in the home country is more tangible and immediate. This might be the reason behind the somewhat different understanding of the issue among the two sets of voters.

An earlier 2006 study, by the Dutch economist Dr Jan Fidrmuc and econometrist Orla Doyle, came to the same conclusion after studying the voting behaviour of Czech and Polish migrants/expats in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The results of this study indicated that the political preferences of immigrants change significantly because the migrants adapt to the norms and attitudes prevailing in the host country.

Fidrmuc and Doyle found that most Czech and Polish migrants living in European countries tended to vote for right-wing parties at home but, interestingly, those living in African and Middle-Eastern countries preferred left-leaning parties.

The economic and political environments in Europe and Africa and/or the Middle East differ. So expats/migrants in Europe, after experiencing the advantages of developed economies, are likely to understand ‘progress’ in their home country through the lens provided to them by their lived experience in developed countries. Thus they tend to support home parties promising progress along these lines.

But what about expats from developed countries opting to vote for conservative parties? Studies suggest that British and American expats voting for the Conservative Party and Republican Party largely vote to retain their countries’ rarely-changing external policies rather than the more fluid internal matters. They are more impacted by the foreign policies of their home countries than by their countries’ internal, more localised issues.

Findings of both the mentioned studies also more than allude to the fact that, outside the voting patterns of US and UK expats, expat voting can be fickle. Since most expats are likely to vote for the opposition, they can be quick to withdraw their support once the opposition comes to power and is slow to deliver.

Both PTI and BJP enjoyed overwhelming support from Pakistani and Indian expats before both were voted into power. However, the support for the two ruling parties is now receding at home, and there is restlessness within the pro-PTI and pro-BJP Pakistani and Indian diasporas respectively.

Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Imran Khan now apply separate rhetorics for their supporters within and outside the country. Outside their countries, to retain the diaspora’s attention and support, they have to continue sounding like they did when they were in the opposition, whereas the same rhetoric is now failing to stand up to a plethora of economic and political problems at home.

Indian historian Meera Nanda writes in The God Market that the changing worldview of the Indian middle classes (and diaspora) is being shaped by the “state-temple-corporate complex.” Rich Indians are heavily investing in this by fusing Hindu nationalism with modern economics. This combination excites the Indian diaspora and they identify it with Modi. But what happens when the corporate is finally swallowed by Hindu zealotry and leaves behind only Hindu nationalism?

On the other hand, what excited the Pakistani diaspora about PM Khan was the manner in which he tapped into the Pakistani diaspora’s engagement with contemporary identity politics, especially in the West. He did this by clubbing together displays of religiosity, anti-corruption tirades, populist post-colonialist rhetoric and lofty allusions to Scandinavian social democracy — which is curiously explained by him as an Islamic concept.

Whereas identity politics can lead to some awkward ethnic and sectarian tensions in Pakistan, it works well on the Pakistani diaspora. Therefore, the gap between the understanding of present-day Pakistani politics between the expats and the locals has continued to grow. Some locals have lamented that expats are still stuck in 2014, or in PTI’s more glamorous dharna years.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 1st, 2019