ISLAMABAD - A new challenge awaits Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) after a woman petitioner succeeded in bringing a direction from Islamabad High Court (IHC) that asked Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to ensure fundamental rights to millions of overseas Pakistanis to cast votes in the upcoming local bodies (LB) elections.

The challenge is enormous for ECP that is bound to ask the government to make a necessary legislation for enabling overseas voters to participate in the election process. The government, however, has been hesitating over the last one-and-a-half years to amend the Constitution in this regard.

Dr Farhat Siddiqui, a Pakisani-born physician in United States, had challenged the federation in IHC demanding right to cast votes. She states that she is an overseas Pakistani and a business-woman and contributes in the welfare of the native country Pakistan by regularly sending money in shape of foreign remittances.

Counsels of Dr Siddiqui on Thursday appeared before CEC Justice (retired) Sardar Raza Khan and four members of ECP and argued that since the commission was election conducting body, therefore, it was the duty of the ECP to ensure rights of franchise to overseas Pakistanis.

In case the government does not make legislation in this regard, the petitioner can move a contempt petition against ECP and the federation in light of the direction given by IHC.

In 2013, a presidential ordinance during the interim government had asked Senate to make legislation for giving right of votes to over 8 million overseas Pakistanis to participate in election. However, so far the upper and lower houses have not amended the constitution to include overseas Pakistanis in election process.

Highly-placed official sources in ECP told The Nation that the issue was one of the biggest challenges confronted by both government and ECP as it was a hectic task to conduct election in countries housing Pakistani nationals.

“The ECP asked the government today to make legislation and give the fundamental right to overseas Pakistanis. But we insisted about some timeframe. My client wants this right before the upcoming LB elections,” Barrister Dawood Ghaznavi and lawyer Mian Masood told this reporter on Thursday.

Barrister Ghaznavi said this was a wrong impression that countries where there was no democracy, were not ready to cooperate with Pakistan in facilitating polling process for overseas voters. He argued that 10 countries including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain had already agreed to assist Pakistani embassies/counsels in arranging polling facilities for Pakistani workers.

But ECP officials said that in case both house of Parliament passed the legislation, the mode of conducting of polls would be a gigantic process for the election authorities adding that election arrangements for millions of voters abroad would be the fist and toughest exercise for ECP.

“Nearly a million Pakistanis work in Saudi Arabia and the same number exists in UAE. Imagine how can we dispatch ballot papers and then conduct election in a single day in these countries. We are really at a loss how to conduct the exercise,” an ECP official said.

He said the ECP had already pondered about three possible modes of conducting election process abroad including establishing polling stations in Pakistani embassies/offices, electronic voting and postal voting.

The official said the issue was really a challenging task for ECP as the commission being a constitutional body was required to conduct elections. “The government can amend the law in a week but the brunt would be faced by the ECP. Besides, we are required to give the rights of casting votes to overseas Pakistanis before the upcoming local bodies elections,” he added.

In her petition Dr Siddiqui, has contended before the court that the petitioner’s fundamental right under Article 17, 25 and 218(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan has been infringed due to Executive/Federal Government by not extending the of right to vote to overseas Pakistanis in all kinds of  elections in Pakistan.

Barrister Ghaznavi said that the Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan insists upon the federal government to extend the facility of voting to overseas Pakistanis in the election of the Parliament as well as local bodies.

“Today’s hearing in ECP was a success for us. Now the government is bound to amend law and give this fundamental right to overseas Pakistanis. Otherwise we will move a contempt petition,” the lawyer added.

Pakistanis work in over 140 countries across the world with large concentration residing in countries like United States (0.9 million), Canada (0.3 million), Oman (0.2 million), Kuwait (150,000), Greece (90,000), Germany (78,000), France and Scotland (60,000 each), Denmark (30,000) and Australia (27,000).

According to ECP, local government elections would be held possibly by April in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa adding that the petitioner through the counsels requested the commission to enable overseas Pakistanis to cast votes in the process at all costs.