Over half of democracies or over 115 countries allow overseas voting. With globalization and the spread of democracy, this trend is only on the rise, with more and more countries contemplating allowing their diaspora to vote. A study suggests that once a country provides for Overseas Voting, the chances of the neighboring countries following suit almost doubles.
In a landmark judgment in 2014 (Ch Nasir Iqbal PLD 2014 72), the Supreme Court ruled that Overseas Pakistanis have a right to vote in an election of Parliament and in Local Bodies elections.
On Nov 17, 2021, the parliament, in a joint session, passed legislation giving Overseas Pakistanis full voting rights. Before this, the legislation limited Overseas Pakistanis to voting only in bye-elections. The previous law had also made it optional for Election Commission to make such arrangements.
Who are the Overseas Pakistanis?
We are looking at 10 million plus people who constitute the Overseas Pakistanis. Before we go into the details of overseas voting, let us pause to understand; Who are these Overseas Pakistanis? What do they do? Why do they leave the country? Do they migrate permanently?
Some portray the image of an Overseas Pakistani as an affluent people settled permanently in the west, holding dual nationalities, with little interest or stakes in Pakistan. This cannot be further from the truth.
An overwhelming majority of Overseas Pakistanis are economic migrants belonging to the working class in white and blue-collar jobs. A vast percentage migrate to the Middle East, with no prospects of acquiring dual nationalities or settling abroad permanently. Yet another approximately fifty percent of migrants are unskilled or semi-skilled. Many of these overseas low-wage workers can only afford to live alone and in basic conditions often sharing accommodation with dozens of others in similar conditions. This enables them to save enough to support families back home while building some capital in the hope of one day buying a small house or establishing a stream of income back in Pakistan.
Overseas Pakistanis, often without any support network, launch themselves from scratch with sheer hard work and grit. In the process, they form an expansive worldview and develop an appreciation for well-functioning governance systems.
Overseas Pakistanis are from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. They left Pakistan because there wasn’t enough space to survive and thrive. They rise and fall on their merit. They are not beneficiaries of the “status-quo” in Pakistan.
The Pakistani diaspora contributes to Pakistan’s progress in multiple ways. The most visible benefit is the billions of dollars of remittances that keep Pakistan afloat. Another less tangible yet significant contribution is exchanging ideas, bringing the learned experiences and exposure to Pakistan’s business, corporate, start-up, and academic circles.
With this background, let us return to the Overseas Voting topic. I often get asked, why should Overseas Pakistanis be allowed to vote? Common objections include; they have no skin in the game or don’t know what is happening in the streets of Pakistan.
Overseas Pakistanis skin in the game
There are two dimensions to this question. Legal and philosophical.
Legally, the constitution of Pakistan gives overseas Pakistanis the right to vote. It is their fundamental, inalienable right.
To address the philosophical dimension, let’s answer this question with another question. Do you know an Overseas Pakistani who does not have a home, school, friends, investment, or immediate relatives in Pakistan?
Overseas Pakistanis maintain deep links with immediate family and society back home. The diaspora feels any setbacks to Pakistan more acutely on the global stage. As they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Now that Overseas Voting is the law of the land let us assess two aspects of the impact of their participation in the election: qualitative and quantitative.
The critical question is: Who would Overseas Pakistanis vote for? Would they follow the same pattern as resident Pakistanis or not? To answer this question, we need to understand what the status quo offers vs. Overseas Pakistanis’ aspirations and expectations from a government.
Traditionally, the local influentials, also known as “electables,” insert themselves between the state’s service delivery and the citizens. Their influence over government jobs, utility connections, civil works, bureaucracy, “thana-kachehry” is used as a carrot and stick for the constituents. Topping this with some paltry handouts near the election day is a “winning formula.”
On the contrary, now based on their global experiences and worldview, for Overseas Pakistanis’ the “winning formula” is a fair system. A system that offers upward mobility based on merit. A system that guards property and dignity. A system that protects and provides for the weak and violated. Let’s call their aspirations the “Good Governance Dream.”
Both “winning formulae” are contradictory to each other. So, whose “winning formula” would win at the polls?
Any party or candidate that can sell Overseas Voters the “Good Governance Dream” would have their vote. It is perhaps for this reason that parties that come to power based on dynasty and patronage are resisting enfranchising the overseas voter.
To determine the magnitude of the impact of Overseas Voting, let us turn to numbers. In collaboration with NUST(university) researchers, I published an earlier article, ‘ THE GAME-CHANGING OVERSEAS VOTE”, finds that Overseas Pakistanis can materially impact up to 186 out of 272 National Assembly seats. This represents a swing of approximately 70%. If Overseas Voters get a fair chance to vote, it would be nearly impossible to win elections without their support.
A cursory look at this graphic below of General Election 2018 sample data shows that Overseas Voters hold a massive sway at the polls.
The traditional electable “winning formula” suddenly is no longer lucrative. The advent of Overseas Pakistanis in the voting will change the politics and the nature of politicians forever in Pakistan.
A picture is now emerging as to why some parties want to keep Overseas Voter out of the electoral math. They are doing so by proposing alternate arrangements for Overseas Voters. These suggestions are (1) Giving reserved seats to Overseas Pakistanis or (2) Making Overseas/foreign constituencies or (3) Outright reversing the Overseas Voting provision in the legislation.
Let us put these proposals through the test of legal and logical reasoning.
The Constitution of Pakistan in Article 106(2)(c) explicitly states citizens will vote where their name appears on the electoral roll for any area in the province. There is case law supporting and elaborating this as well.
Furthermore, there is no provision for reserved seats for Overseas Pakistanis in the constitution and, as such, would require a constitutional change. It is worth noting the Right to Vote for Overseas Pakistanis is a fundamental right as per the constitution of Pakistan. Even if the legislation providing overseas voting is reversed, the right would still stand as it has constitutional protection.
Depriving Overseas Pakistanis of their voting right and offering them reserved seats is like providing the women in Pakistan reserved seats and taking away their voting rights. Reserved seats may act as a supplement, not a replacement for the voting rights of a section of citizens.
Similarly, having foreign constituencies fails the test of logical reasoning. Let us say, Bradford, UK, is declared as one constituency, and an MNA gets elected to the National Assembly. This arrangement might make some sense if the representatives had to solve the problems of Bradford. But the diaspora in Bradford, UK, would come from many different districts in Pakistan with their own set of problems. They need representation in Pakistan’s respective districts and constituencies, not Bradford.
Would there be MPAs elected as well? If yes, which provincial assembly would the MPAs from Bradford, UK, belong to? Would there be polling stations in Bradford? What if the foreign constituency is in Saudi Arabia, and the candidates don’t get permission to run an election campaign? If a candidate violates Pakistan’s electoral law while canvassing, how would the Election Commission monitor and enforce its laws in a foreign land? How would the size and number of constituencies get decided? Would there be a census in the whole world to determine the number and location of Overseas Pakistanis? These are just a few basic questions that show how impractical the idea of foreign constituencies is.
Let us now turn to the practicalities of casting an Overseas Vote.
The legislation allows anyone with the Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC) to vote, even if the card is expired. The legislation gives overseas voters further flexibility to vote using National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP). However, the Election Commission of Pakistan has imposed five additional extra-legal conditions on Overseas Pakistanis that risk disenfranchising up to 90 percent of the Overseas voters. These conditions are:
- Not allowing CNIC holders overseas to vote (whereas residents can)
- Not allowing expired NICOP holders to vote (whereas residents can)
- Requiring Overseas Pakistanis to hold Pakistani Machine-Readable Passport (no legal basis)
- Requiring that the Passport be not expired (no legal basis)
- Hold a valid email address
Other discriminations include
- Not allowing overseas Pakistani voters to register their vote throughout the year. A facility that is available to resident Pakistanis.
- Not making any facility for Overseas Voters to check their vote status.
- Forcing Overseas Voters to vote in the Pakistani time zone, e.g., 08:00 am to 05:00 pm Pakistan Standard time. As per a report published on Election Commission’s site, this is de-facto disenfranchising Overseas Voters.
- Not making arrangements for Overseas Pakistanis to vote in the local body elections.
These discriminations have such an adverse impact that the turnout of the Pilot Overseas Voting was less than 1 percent.
Interestingly, in their official reports, the Election Commission has admitted most of these as issues yet has not fixed its rules. The author has petitions against the Election Commission of Pakistan in Lahore High Court to address these discriminations.
Overseas Pakistanis’ votes should be greeted with the same warmth as their remittances.
For a thriving democracy, all citizens should be given a free and fair chance to vote. Overseas Pakistani voters should be no exception. Their addition to the vote bank will add to the collective wisdom of the electorate and help elect representatives that better reflect the mood and consciousness of the nation.
Salman Shabbir is an Overseas Pakistani settled in Australia. He advocates for Overseas Pakistanis’ Rights. You can follow his work and updates on his legal petitions at https://twitter.com/OPVoters or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.