SHOULD overseas Pakistanis have the right to vote in elections held in Pakistan? The question polarises Pakistanis like just about any other issue these days. To me, democracy should be about enfranchising, and not disenfranchising, the most number of people. Hence it would make sense for overseas Pakistanis to also have a say in the electoral process.
However, one must hasten to add, this is not the most pressing concern in terms of electoral reform. For instance, given that an identification card is necessary to vote in Pakistan and large numbers of women, in particular, do not have an identification document, that should be a far more urgent concern to address.
Those who oppose the vote for overseas Pakistanis argue that expatriates do not have enough of a stake in the system to have a say in it. Asif Ali Zardari in a recent press conference mentioned that those overseas are insulated from the excruciating heat and inflationary pressures faced by local Pakistanis and hence may not exercise their voting rights suitably.
There is some truth in this assertion but couldn’t one make the same argument about those in Pakistan who have an air conditioner in every room and automatic generator backup that such loadshedding doesn’t really affect them? Should they too be disenfranchised?
Do expats not have enough of a stake in the system?
How valid is the argument against overseas Pakistanis not having an adequate stake in the system when the ruling party’s head, Nawaz Sharif, resides overseas himself? Not only has he been living in London for the last two and a half years, but recently the incumbent prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, and ministers belonging to his party travelled to London for instructions. Tweeting good times from cooler climes, their disconnect with those they represent couldn’t have been more jarring.
Ironically, the party that seems most keen on the overseas vote, the PTI, is also the one that claims a foreign conspiracy was behind its ouster. How the PTI reconciles importing a national security adviser from the US, namely Moeed Yusuf, alongside now chief of staff to Imran Khan, Shehbaz Gill — who never gave up his job at a US university and reportedly remains on their payroll — yet cry ‘Amreeki saazish’, is something only gullible PTI voters can explain.
Nevertheless, as a proponent of the overseas vote, the PTI is confident that its support in the Pakistani diaspora is unmatched and with their help it can come back with a two-thirds majority. This is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of the PTI. That a majority of overseas Pakistanis would vote for the PTI is mere speculation, as surely for every loony dancing awkwardly outside Avenfield Apartments, accusing the Sharifs of loot and plunder, there are others abroad who feel Imran Khan has lost his marbles and cannot be trusted to run the affairs of state.
Moreover, the total number of overseas Pakistanis is less than 10 million, and that includes minors who are ineligible to vote. Overseas Pakistanis therefore can neither make nor break an election. But so strong is PTI’s self-belief in its fanciful rhetoric that the more established political parties have taken its word for it without putting the overseas vote to a test.
Most countries globally have given their overseas residents the right to vote, including those who have acquired citizenship of other countries. Americans who live in the UK and acquire British citizenship do not lose their right to vote in US elections due to their dual nationality. The reverse is also true for Britons or Europeans residing in the US who acquire American nationality. Some countries, like Germany, do impose a requirement whereby if a voter has not lived in Germany for more than 25 years, then s/he loses the right to vote.
The UK had a similar 15-year requirement but has done away with it this year. Curbing a citizen’s right to vote on the basis that s/he has been out of the country for a very long period of time may be acceptable but dual nationality, for those countries that allow it, cannot be a basis for distinction.
Unlike in India, which never allowed dual nationality, not only is dual nationality allowed under Pakistani law, but citizens are not forewarned that they would be giving up any rights by virtue of acquiring another nationality. Practically, it’s very common for Pakistanis with means to travel to the US to give birth so that their children acquire US nationality. Similarly, senior bureaucrats, military men and politicians have made investments in foreign countries to acquire residence permits and foreign nationalities.
Traffic flows both ways and dual nationals have also returned to Pakistan to provide expertise as doctors, lawyers, academics and finance professionals. Yet despite strong overseas connections of nearly all who run affairs in Pakistan, the diaspora remains an easy target and stories of foreign conspiracies abound.
The writer is a lawyer who lives in London.
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2022