About nine million Pakistanis work and live abroad, which makes them the 6th largest diaspora in the world. They are ‘playing an important role in the development of Pakistan as well as in the strengthening of our economy’ as they send billions of US dollars each year to the country. This year they have already sent USD 27billion, which is more than the foreign currency earnings from our total exports.
More than half of them work in the middle east while about three million live in western countries. Those who work in middle eastern countries have left their families in Pakistan. On the other hand, those who live in advanced western countries have their families with them. These dynamics must be understood and appreciated.
They are bona fide citizens of the country as they carry a Pakistani passport or Pakistan Origin Card or NICOP. Despite having a diverse background (generational, gender, professional, ethnic, etc.) broadly speaking, most of them psychologically live in Pakistan. They are deeply connected with the country. For instance, they spend more time watching Pakistani political talk shows than the English language TV channels. They are also likely to read Urdu newspapers than the English or French newspapers.
Overseas Pakistanis’ love for their country
Prof. Benedict Anderson in his influential book, “Imagined Communities” defines a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group.
In his view, the media creates imagined communities by ‘using images’. However, the audience has the autonomy to ‘choose which image they relate to the most, furthering the relationship to that imagined community.’ Radically enhanced access of overseas citizens of Pakistan to the Urdu language and social media has reinforced their bond not only with the country but also with society.
Generally, human beings are most likely to strive for happiness, prosperity, and fulfilling social life. Except few, most of our overseas Pakistanis live in countries where they enjoy the benefits of good governance, rule of law and fully participate in electing their representatives.
Sadly, in the country of their origin neither rule of law, nor good governance exist. They realize this difference the moment they land at Pakistani airports. Yet, their love for Pakistan remains deep. Despite, having the nationality of host countries, most of them have refused to give up their Pakistani nationality. This bond must be made transformative.
Right to vote for IMF or overseas Pakistanis?
More than foreign exchange, they could bring new ideas, innovations, and energies to the country that we need desperately. Question. Why successive governments didn’t bother to unleash that potential? In my view, the kind of political class we have don’t want independent-minded people to participate in the affairs of our governance.
Consider this. The other day during a TV talk show a former defense minister crudely trivialized the issue of giving the right to vote to overseas Pakistanis because in his view, if the financial contribution is the criteria, then IMF should also be given the right to vote.
People like him conveniently forget that Pakistanis living abroad are citizens of this country and IMF is not a citizen. Moreover, he should know institutions don’t vote in any general election.
Politicians like him just need their money but are afraid of giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote as they may challenge the corrupt rulers, demand good governance and democratic norms.
The debate on electoral reforms has already heightened the demand for overseas Pakistanis right to vote. Simply, if an overseas Pakistani remains a citizen of his/her country, she can’t be denied the rights that are enshrined in our constitution.
The former defense minister perhaps didn’t know that article 25 of our constitution guarantees equality to all citizens. It says, all citizens are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law. Our constitution also guarantees a universal adult franchise. Since they have their stakes in the country, they have the right to have representation.
A need to end electoral discrimination
In August 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had also directed the Election Commission to ensure that overseas Pakistanis exercise their right to vote in future by-elections as a pilot project.
The ECP and our parliament failed to make any concrete development. Had we practiced external voting in all our by-elections (in total roughly three dozens), we would have huge data to draw conclusions for improvement and the debate on the issue would have been data-based and rich.
The state has no right to continue ignoring the rights of overseas citizens because they work and live out of the country. This electoral discrimination must come to an end. Enough has already been done callously.
And remember, many countries have been practicing overseas or external voting.
Consider this, as many as 41 European, 28 African, 16 American, and 20 Asian countries have given the right to vote to their diasporas externally. They use various methods including the internet (Estonia), postal (Canada, Mexico), fax-based (Australia), and in-person (South Africa, Hungary, Afghanistan). Interesting one of the pioneering countries is Indonesia which started external voting in 1955. Remember, Pakistan has allowed Afghan refugees to vote for presidential elections.
Regarding procedural issues of voting, state institutions could develop unique methods by learning from the experiences of the above-mentioned 115 countries and the literature that is available.
As far registration as a voter, since almost every overseas Pakistani possesses some form of identity document e.g. passport, CNIC, and NICOP, this could be used for this purpose. Moreover, the Elections Act 2017 provides sufficient ground for the inclusion of names of overseas Pakistanis on the electoral roll. By doing this, the state can end at least the decades-old electoral discrimination.
Sarwar Bari is the former Secretary-General of FAFEN and he heads Pattan Development Organisation. Pattan has been working with disaster-prone and marginalized communities since 1992 when super floods hit Pakistan. Since its inception, the organization has evolved a holistic disaster risk reduction approach that stands on five themes: capacity building, gender mainstreaming, social action, governance monitoring, and defending human rights and civil liberties. Research-based advocacy is being used for public policy improvement. Currently, Pattan’s partners are working in 27 districts of Pakistan.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.