By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
Since 1993, the question of enabling overseas Pakistanis to vote in Pakistani elections from their respective countries of residence has been hanging fire. At least eight litigations are on record to seek this facility for overseas citizens. The efforts, both political and technological, have, however, followed an ebb and flow pattern. Governments and political parties get worked up closer to election; speeches are made; slogans raised; committees formed; reports written; court orders obtained; even laws are enacted but, in the end, there is not enough time left before the next general election to address the lingering reservations about the security, privacy and integrity of the votes to be cast from about 130 countries around the globe where the Pakistani diaspora resides. There is seldom any serious research and timely follow-up of the issues identified in overseas Pakistanis’ voting.
It is no different this time. A task force of experts was constituted by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on Supreme Court (SC) direction in April 2018- about three months before the last general election- to undertake a technical audit of the Internet Voting solution developed by NADRA for the 2018 General Election. The task force very efficiently submitted its report but did not recommend the proposed I-Voting system for 2018 General Election and urged a dedicated, well-funded research and development cell within ECP to develop secure new technological solutions for election.
No meaningful follow-up of the report was undertaken for three long years except for appointing a consulting firm in February/ March 2021 to conduct, in effect, yet another audit; this time of the Task Force Report. The Consultant’s report submitted in May 2021 also endorsed the Task Force conclusion and noted that since 2018, most of the recommendations of the Task Force were not implemented.
Meanwhile, the government of Pakistan promulgated an ordinance on May 08, 2021 which made it incumbent upon ECP to ‘… enable Overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote during general elections in their country of residence’. The ordinance did not prescribe the system by which Overseas Pakistanis would be enabled to vote in their country of residence. Apparently, the government felt unsure of the proposed I-Voting system which was so far considered an insecure system by most of the experts based on the technology which was until recently available.
Apparently, the government went wrong on two counts: first, the entire first half of the government’s 5-year term went by without initiating actions on provision of out-of-country voting by overseas Pakistanis. Out-of-country-voting does not have a readymade solution; the solution will not only need to be researched and developed but pilot-tested as well before it is implemented in phases. Naturally, all this takes time. Therefore, in all probability, overseas Pakistanis may not be able to exercise their right to vote even in the next general election scheduled for 2023.
Another lapse on the part of the government was its inability to implement Section 94 of the Elections Act, 2017 which required Election Commission to ‘… undertake pilot projects for voting by Overseas Pakistanis in by-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the government, which shall, within fifteen days …. lay the same before both houses of majlis-e-shoora (Parliament).’
ECP did conduct pilot testing of I-voting in by-election in 35 National and Provincial Assembly constituencies in October 2018 and submitted its report to the government the same year in December. Sadly, as of today, the report has not been discussed in the parliament whereas the debate on the ECP report on the pilot testing of I-Voting should have been the first serious step towards introducing overseas Pakistanis’ out-of-country voting. It is beyond logic that the government decided to simply ignore the ECP report and jumped straight to promulgation of an ordinance without specifying any system of voting by overseas Pakistanis.
Apparently, I-Voting, despite challenges, seems to be the only practical way to enable out-of-country voting. The real issue, however, is that although successive governments in Pakistan have supported overseas Pakistanis voting and PTI has even approached the superior courts for this purpose, no tangible work was done by any government to support research and development for a secure and reliable solution based on I-Voting. Many experts now concede that latest technological advancements have made it possible to develop a secure I-Voting Solution but its customization and testing in the Pakistani election environment will require resources and time – about three years – to finally transform the dream of overseas Pakistanis’ out-of-country voting to a reality. Can Pakistani decision makers rise above sloganeering, party politics and undertake a serious effort to make Overseas Pakistanis’ out-of-country voting possible?
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT.