Voting rights for overseas Pakistanis

"In a democratic process, any legislation without taking opposition on board can bring disastrous results"

Once again, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan has been up in arms against the deprivation of voting rights to overseas Pakistanis. He has challenged the passage of the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 in the Supreme Court by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government. The bill was aimed at abandoning the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in general elections and depriving overseas Pakistanis of voting. The PTI chairman is seeking a direction for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to provide an effective right to vote for overseas Pakistanis in the next general elections.

Democratic norms are losing their significance and national politics is turning into a game of vested interests. Each political party keeps its interest supreme and is busy manipulating the legislation process upon its turn after coming into power. The PML-N and like-minded political parties oppose the use of electronic voting machines on the ground that the technology is not reliable and there is every chance that it could be misused. It is argued that many areas in the country do not have access to the internet, and the system can face technical glitches making room for election manoeuvring. There is also a general perception that Imran Khan’s PTI party could benefit from the granting of the vote to expat Pakistanis. Many experts predict that PTI stands the most to gain from the move, as it has a significant following among those overseas citizens who are disillusioned with the country’s two mainstream political parties including the PML-N and PPP. Khan potentially stands to benefit the most, given the groundswell of political support for him overseas. The influence of overseas Pakistanis on national politics cannot be ruled out. They have become the biggest export of this country as they send remittances to the tune of $30 billion annually. Overseas Pakistanis have families and friends back home and their opinion does matter during every election.

The right to vote was granted by the Supreme Court (SC) to Pakistanis living overseas in August 2018 for the first time. Previously, overseas Pakistanis were not granted the right to cast their votes in the general elections. Regardless of how the extension of the franchise will affect Khan’s success, the change should have been welcomed as a positive effort which would allow overseas Pakistanis to have more involvement in their home country, about whose progress many of them were passionate.

Millions of Pakistanis have left their home to work in other countries to earn their livelihood. They remit large portions of their earnings to Pakistan and enhance the foreign exchange reserves of the country. The government runs on this money to keep the balance of payments for imports. However, the government does not provide these expatriates abroad with any facility for their service to the country. They are doubted and frowned upon as if they were not loyal to the country.

For many decades, they were deprived of their fundamental right to vote in elections. While some politicians outright doubt their loyalties, the government puts forward the flimsy grounds that it faces a host of problems in managing to vote for those abroad. In the past, government servants posted outstation could cast their votes through postal ballot. One wonders, how the government could manage postal ballots for one group in the past and deny the other of their fundamental right to vote – especially when the country is being run on the remittances sent by those living and working abroad. Overseas Pakistanis have been an active political voice, but often without a focus. Efforts like this provide them with an avenue for greater participation in political life in Pakistan and the change should be welcomed.

There is also an argument that those living abroad should not be a part of national politics. Many overseas nationals are also accused of influencing local government machinery and demanding undue favours. They pose themselves as a pressure group and influence the electoral process for their own interests. So, they also become a stakeholder while seeking the dual benefits of their dual nationality. There is a need for building a consensus on the involvement of overseas Pakistanis in national politics.

In a democratic process, any legislation without taking opposition on board can bring disastrous results. The use of electronic machines for voting in Pakistan has its pros and cons. It cannot be implemented all at once as a large percentage of the population is illiterate in Pakistan. Moreover, depriving overseas Pakistanis of the right to vote should also be given a second thought. If one dislikes the right to franchise by overseas Pakistanis then those with dual nationalities should also be not made a part of any government. Moreover, the government needs to make self-dependence a top priority to avoid any influence of those sitting abroad and deciding the fate of their countrymen back at home.