For the very first time in the history of Pakistan, overseas Pakistanis can exercise their most important right as citizens of their cherished motherland. The Chief Justice of Pakistan has recently permitted the 7.9 million Pakistanis living abroad to cast their votes for the upcoming by poll elections. Elections are to be held in 11 National Assembly and 26 Provincial Assembly constituencies on the 14th of October 2018. A valid MRP (Machine Readable Passport) and NICOP (National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis) are mandatory requirements for Pakistanis to vote. Nadeem Qassim, a spokesperson ECP explained in a media talk that the overseas Pakistanis will be able to register themselves in the constituencies where their vote is registered on the ECP website from September 1st till the 15th. The commission has provided a complete list of all the constituencies on their website homepage. The voter is required to fill in all his personal details and the account will be verified by the ECP. A message will be sent stating that the registration has been completed and that the voter will be able to log in the internet voting system by putting in his email and password. Voting will commence from 8 am on the 14th of October and will end till 5 pm on the same day as per Pakistan Standard Time.
The issue of overseas Pakistanis demanding the government to exercise their voting rights is not a new one. Overseas Pakistanis quest for voting in the general elections back home started in 1970s after the first major general elections. The elections of 1977 were highly discredited, so people had to wait for 15 years to exercise their voting rights again in 1985. It was during this time that overseas Pakistanis started to request for a facility to vote from their country of residence outside Pakistan. In 1993, for the very first time a constitution petition was filed by British Pakistani Law student Yasmin Khan through her council Akram Sheikh. Nasim Hassan Shah; then Chief Justice of Pakistan; heard the petition and forwarded the matter to ECP and the government of Pakistan for consideration. After that different federal agencies have looked at the matter from different angles but it had always been considered an impossible task.
With time, the overseas community started raising their voice on social media platforms demanding the government and the ECP to start online voting system. Almost 2 identical petitions were filed in 2011; one of them being from the PTI Chairman and current Prime Minister of Pakistan - Imran Khan; seeking to make arrangements for overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right of voting. On the 29th of April 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan rejected both petitions stating that out of country voting is a difficult challenge in the case of a country as big as Pakistan. However, the ECP was advised to “make all possible efforts to achieve this objective…”
Since the next general elections were already scheduled in May 2013, it was unrealistic to expect that the ECP could plan to make overseas voting possible. However, an Electoral Laws Ordinance was broadcasted by the government just 2 days before the election. Even though it was a mere formality as it was the first law in the statute books to demand an overseas voting facility. But this Ordinance remained unimplemented, because the government of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided not to pass it as an act of Parliament. After that, a Parliamentary committee on Electoral Reforms headed by then Finance Minister Ishaq Dar tried to legislate a facility for overseas voting. The draft election bill of 2017 did carry a provision for overseas Pakistani voting but did not include any time frame or an implementation process. On the other hand, a sub committee headed by PTI’s Arif Alvi deliberately tried to legislate this voting but without any tangible result.
The general elections of 2018 were held on July 25th and the overseas Pakistanis still could not have a facility to vote. Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan and highlighted this issue in his maiden address to the nation. And now in a landmark decision by the Chief Justice of Pakistan overseas Pakistanis can exercise their voting rights in the upcoming by polls. It has been a long tenacious struggle but millions of Pakistanis like myself can now exercise their basic right as citizens of their beloved homeland. The registration has already begun on the 1st of September and will continue till the 15th. Even though the general elections are over now but these by poll elections are a great way to start and test this i-voting system. Voters can now register themselves in their respective constituencies and then vote on October 14th. This is big step and the voters abroad should responsibly vote, as its our basic civic duty. Our contribution in this i-voting can not only help make the system better but also more reliable in the next general elections. One of the biggest problems faced by the ECP in any election is rigging. The i-voting system implemented for the by polls will be free from rigging because it will run through a fixed algorithm and will not be prone to personal biasness and errors. Hence, the result will be both free and fair.
As per the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, Pakistan has the 6th largest diaspora in the world with 7.6 million Pakistanis living abroad. 4 million of them live in the Middle East. This is a significantly large number of voters whose voice has not heard previously in the electoral process. Pakistanis living abroad have a more vocal stance when it comes to Pakistani politics as their opinions are based on their experiences abroad through which they tend to evaluate situation in Pakistan on comparative basis.
All the major political parties have their manifestos online but a very small number of Pakistanis actually care to read or understand them in detail. Overseas Pakistanis on the other hand critically evaluate parties on their policies and plans based on their understanding of how systems work in first world countries and the areas where Pakistan is lagging behind. They tend to look at the priority issues like health, security and education by staying out of the legacy system of feudalism where people have been voting same people or party since generations. With this policy change political parties will have to adapt to the expectations of this new segment in order to secure their vote bank.
Pakistan’s total population is 193.2 million. According to the ECP Pakistan has 105.96 million eligible voters (56%) which is 23% higher than the figures of 2013 general elections. Out of these 105.9m (51.6%) people actually casted their votes in last election. In case of overseas Pakistani’s, if 51.6% of them cast vote then it roughly translates to about 4 to 5 million votes considering various individuals will get their NICOPs issued now that the i-voting is operational. Voter to population ratio among overseas Pakistani’s is expected to be much higher but even if 4-5 million voters cast their votes in next election then it is a significant no of votes to cause an upset to any of the major three political parties in Pakistan. It will be interesting to see how these political parties cope with this shift in vote bank. This will not only compel the political parties to improve their manifestos but also focus more on health, education and security in their respective constituencies. Because the overseas voter is an informed voter and has a more critical and neutral approach towards the political parties.
The writer is a graduate of Lahore University of Management Sciences and is currently living
in Sydney, Australia.