Overseas Pakistanis voting: what are the prospects and pitfalls?

Overseas Pakistanis have hitherto had no share in the voting in the national elections - that is all set to change with "I-voting".

Overseas Pakistanis voting

Whether it is telephonic voting or voting through polling booths, Pakistan is among the 100 countries which does not assist its expatriates to cast votes in general elections back home. These “Overseas Pakistanis” do not have a share in the voting in the General Elections. Right to vote via the internet, ‘I-voting’, if granted – would serve to be a game changer for Pakistani politics.

Not only would it give voice to the 6th largest diaspora spread in over 150 countries but political parties would have to align their agendas with their expectations, progressive as they may be, to save roughly 4-5 mn votes. At the same time, I-voting would serve citizens of Pakistan by easing the process. Allowing votes to be cast from the comfort of homes, it would free the electorate from hassles of ballot snatching, hijacking of polling-stations and vote frauds.

Entering 2020: where does Pakistan stand on I-voting currently?

Dr. Alvi, chairing the last meeting on ‘Electronic Voting System’ on 22nd July, urged confidential voting for Pakistanis living abroad. Aiming to gain their full confidence, he means to ensure their full participation. This was earlier stressed by SAPM on Overseas Pakistanis in May of the same year.

Read more: Why Election Commission of Pakistan has repeatedly failed?

Zulfiqar Bokhari sought to simplify I-voting process by introducing a new mechanism of ‘portable digital devices’, through which overseas Pakistanis could vote for parties in their homeland. In this meeting, the modus operandi of I-voting was reviewed. NADRA demonstrated three procedural steps: registration, verification and vote.

Why is PTI so concerned about Overseas Pakistanis voting?

Overseas Pakistanis – either migrants or born abroad, add up to 8.8 mn, with as much as 4.7 mn residing in Middle East mostly as blue-collar labourers and 1.2 mn in UK, with some as white-collar professionals. PTI is likely to garner votes from the latter as pointed out by Islamabad-based political analyst Zaigham Khan, who stated that “Pakistanis living in North America and Europe are attracted towards the PTI because they see Imran Khan mingling with the European elite and they admire him.”

Political interest is not the sole reason.

Together, expatriates form the backbone of Pakistan’s economy by sending remittances worth $24 bn, contributing 8.45% to the GDP. To facilitate their investment in Pakistan, the diaspora – valuable assets of the country, must be privileged with the right to vote. As a democratic principle – all citizens, wherever they may be during the election time, deserve to be a part of it. An overseas’ vote is not just a vote but a sense of ownership.

Background: Expatriates want to be allowed to vote

Struggle to attain voting rights for Pakistanis abroad dates back to 1970s. Elections of 1977 were deemed to have been compromised, so Pakistanis had to wait until 1985 to exercise their voting rights again. During these 15 years, demands were placed for a voting facility abroad.

Yasmin Khan, a British Pakistani student, filed a constitution petition for the first time in 1993. The request was heard – Chief Justice of Pakistan relayed the matter on to Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for deliberation.

Pressure gradually built up on social media platforms, with 2011 seeing two petitions – one from the incumbent PM, Imran Khan. To the much dismay of overseas Pakistani, requests were ruled out by Supreme Court on the basis of being financially and logistically challenging. Just 2 days prior to elections of 2013, an Electoral Law Ordinance was passed but, it was a mere formality as its implementation was thwarted by then-PM Nawaz Sharif who chose to not pass it as an act of Parliament.

Read more: Voting rights for Pakistanis living abroad to be guaranteed: CJP

Efforts to legislate overseas voting were not curbed – heading Parliamentary committee on Electoral Reforms, then-Finance Minister Ishaq Dar pushed forward. A provision in draft election bill of 2017 was achieved but, there was no set time-frame for its execution. Side by side, attempts by PTI’s Arif Alvi also faltered as no fruitful outcomes were in sight.

Even though a software was introduced by NADRA in 2018, but considering the time required for it to be tested and then approved by the Court, elections had to proceed without the requests of expatriates being met. There was light at the end of the tunnel – Imran Khan became the PM, addressing this issue in his maiden speech.

Overseas Pakistanis allowed to vote after 25 years

For pilot testing, Supreme Court directed ECP on 17th August, 2018 to assist the National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP) and Machine Readable Passport (MRP) holders, making 84% of the total Pakistanis abroad, in the by-polls of October of the same year.

A digital solution was proffered – the ‘I-voting’ system was devised by ECP with the assistance of NADRA. Representative of the Pakistani expatriate community present in the Court welcomed the decision, making a point of how Pakistani nationals in U.S. were willing to contribute $1mn for the construction of dams.

Read more: Why PML-N and PPP are opposing online voting system for Pakistani diaspora

The nascent online mechanism for voting was lauded for allowing a chance at free and fair elections – its fixed algorithm was seen to override risk of personal bias. SEO and Digital Marketing Consultant, Khushal took to Twitter:

Is electronic feasible in an undigitized Pakistan?

Despite step-by-step tutorials and awareness campaigns launched by ECP to guide the registration and electoral processes, I-voting fell short of expectations. During these by-elections of 37 constituencies, 700,000 expats were expected to vote but lesser than 7000 availed the facility. Does this reflect failure of Court’s decision?

Senator Javed Abbasi, although making it clear that all political parties were in favour of overseas voting, expressed scepticism. “It was also informed that the Results Transmission System (RTS) and RLS were very good systems but both system got stuck or failed due to lagging in the general election,” he stated. Dr. Alvi underpinned this, pointing out how I-voting was only 82% successful.

Read more: ECP declares E-voting impossible for overseas Pakistanis in general elections

Two opposition parties, PML-N and PPP, criticised ECP for making a hasty move to which ECP replied that it was merely complying with Court’s decision, and had previously insisted on not using I-votes in the vote count. A task force of IT experts agreed, arguing that the system could be hacked by foreign governments or intelligence agencies. The system fails to ensure ballot secrecy required under Clause 94, Elections Act (2017) and Article 226 of the Constitution.

Overseas Vote: The way forward

Internet voting remains a contested issue for Pakistan, partly because of technical difficulties but also due to opposition by local stakeholders: why should overseas Pakistanis, with possibly divided loyalties, have a say in domestic politics?

Opinion of expatriates is treasured because it is derived from their experiences abroad. They can present a critical picture of Pakistan by identifying the areas it lags behind in comparison to its developed counterparts.

Read more: An “App” that can revolutionize Voting & Elections in Pakistan

Prioritising pressing issues of health, education, security – overseas Pakistanis, neutral in their stance, are likely break free from the clutches of political dynasties.

The ruling party, PTI, enjoys considerable support overseas and with the ball now in its court, future for I-voting remains bright. Elections of 2023 may open new avenues for digital Pakistan.

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