The problem with the expat vote
The Election Commission of Pakistan recently announced that in principal, it had agreed to franchise overseas Pakistanis by allowing them to participate in the electoral process. However, going through the minutes of the meeting conducted by Secretary ECP Mr Ishtiak Ahmad Khan, it’s quite clear that things are not as done and dusted as news reports have made out to seem.
Quite rightly, the ECP is still considering the most efficient and transparent way in which to conduct elections for overseas Pakistanis. Setting up voting booths in high commissions, embassies and consulates across the globe is quite an expensive option as many Pakistanis may not live close to one, and some countries/regions do not have representative offices at all. There is the obvious cost implication as well; securing and transporting ballots, reporting officers, party representatives, electoral staff etc, could yet make this exercise impractical.
Postal ballots could be another option, however, one does not have to be a keen follower of Pakistani politics to predict how quickly accusations of foul play will discredit the process and put the ECP on the back foot.
Who is an ‘overseas Pakistani’?
Does that include dual nationals as well? Do we include the long term foreign residents? From the minutes of the meeting conducted by the ECP, the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF) defined an overseas Pakistani as “a Pakistani citizen who has migrated to another country for work.” That definition, if applied narrowly, would exclude students, dual nationals and Pakistanis who have moved abroad to join their spouses etc.
What has been widely reported in the news is that only those overseas Pakistanis will be allowed to vote who hold a National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (NICOP). This in itself is slightly problematic as voting is a right and not a privilege. A passport should suffice to prove ones identity. Dual nationals may not have an NICOP or may not want to pay the additional fees and go through the hassle for one. Those Pakistanis who hold a Computerised National Identity Card (CNIC), for example, would then have to pay an additional charge to get one. At a global level, the charges are not even uniform while some Pakistani representative offices are even contradicting the fee structure stated on the NADRA website. Perhaps most importantly, the ability to apply for a NICOP is not uniform across the globe, with some countries with larger Pakistani embassies or consulates offering better services than others.
What exactly will overseas Pakistanis be voting for?
Will they be voting in their constituency in Pakistan or for reserved seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies? If seats are reserved for overseas Pakistanis in the respective assemblies, would candidates be nominated from outside or within Pakistan? The practical problem here is obvious: If there are, say five seats reserved for overseas Pakistanis in the National Assembly, would the candidates then be expected to campaign in multiple countries? Would we have a situation where an overseas Pakistani based in Australia, could be voting for a candidate resident in Canada?
What if an overseas Pakistani wants to put his name forward as a candidate, but his/her local Pakistani community is small fraction of the region or countries that constitute his constituency? If the candidates are based in Pakistan, would overseas Pakistanis even have the opportunity to interact with them? Would this not give an advantage to the bigger parties whose candidates are more mobile?
The biggest challenge for overseas Pakistanis and their right to vote will come from the Middle East. With a large number of Pakistanis working throughout the region where political activities are restricted, it may be infeasible for voting to take place. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example, given the current climate in the region, are unlikely to allow large swaths of overseas workers heading for polls, even if they are for a foreign election. It will also be nearly impossible for potential candidates to campaign or hold rallies in the region. The ECP seems to have recognized this problem, and notes that some form of agreement will have to be reached with these countries.
While Western countries arrange postal ballots for their citizens in the Middle East, we shouldn’t be naive in our expectations, and expect Arab governments to set different rules for Pakistani citizens.
Apart from the challenges above, the ECP also notes that amendments would have to be made in laws and regulations to allow overseas Pakistanis to vote. Given that a committee on allowing overseas voting was constituted way back in 1997 and the current government announced its intention to make the requisite changes in June 2008, there remains many challenges -procedural, practical and legal for the ECP.
Will the process be completed in time for the next election?
While any step that allows greater participation should be welcomed, we must try and ensure that the ability to participate is not skewed to certain countries or regions, while excluding others. Hopefully, the prerequisite for participation will not be rigid and narrow, allowing a large number of overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.