By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
In a fitting close to the year, finally the President of Pakistan signed this month the historic Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021, earlier passed by a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament into an act of parliament. The new Act of parliament is meant to ‘…enable overseas Pakistanis, in prescribed manner, subject to secrecy and security, to exercise their right to vote during general elections in Pakistan.’
This legislative milestone of 2021 has brought a struggle spanning over three decades to fruition – at least in a legal sense. Many overseas Pakistanis and leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek e Insaaf rightly hailed the development as a historic one.
The struggle, however, is not over. A number of challenges relating to the implementation of the law remain to be surmounted. To begin with, the law could not win bi-partisan support in the parliament and a sharp divide existed during the passage of the bill, despite the fact that almost all parties, both in the treasury and the opposition benches, supported in principle the overseas Pakistanis’ demand for the facility to cast their votes while residing overseas. According to a report, 221 members voted for, and 203 against the bill indicating a sharp split in the parliament. This lack of consensus will be one key obstacle in smooth implementation of the law in the days to come.
The bill is quite vague and does not specify exactly how overseas Pakistanis will be ‘enabled’ to cast their votes. Apparently, it has been left to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to devise a suitable system of voting by Overseas Pakistanis. ECP had already pilot tested postal ballots a few years back and found them impractical. The option of physical voting at Pakistani missions abroad was also considered but discarded by the ECP finding it even less feasible.
The government of Pakistan is now reportedly keen that ECP again employ NADRA to develop a new solution for Overseas Pakistanis I-Voting. The government is depending upon the new Chairman of NADRA, who enjoys a sound reputation as a technology expert, to come up with a platform which can fulfil the legal requirements of ‘secrecy and security’ to the satisfaction of the ECP. Will ECP be able to enter into an agreement with NADRA and whether NADRA will be able to do the job satisfactorily and in time for the 2023 general election, remains to be seen.
It is generally believed that PTI enjoys overwhelming support among Overseas Pakistani voters which total around 9 million scattered around the globe. The federal Minister of Interior, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, whose ministry also overseas NADRA, has recently claimed that Overseas Pakistanis’ votes are likely to impact the election results of around 70 National Assembly constituencies. A PILDAT research revealed that the number of Overseas Pakistani voters in 100 to 140 National Assembly constituencies exceeded the margin of victory that was recorded in the 2018 General Election. This means that Overseas Pakistani voters could make a win-or-lose difference in as many constituencies depending upon their turnout on election day. These are staggering numbers and indicate the high political stakes associated with Overseas Pakistani votes.
Now that the PTI-led government has fulfilled its promise of getting the law passed for Overseas Pakistanis voting, though without developing a bi-partisan consensus , the real test lies in its implementation. The race, like in the 2018 General Election, is once again against time.
The ball is now squarely in the court of the ECP. There is a lot of pressure on ECP to complete all formalities in time to enable Overseas Pakistanis to vote in the 2023 General Election. On the other hand, it is the constitutional responsibility of the ECP to make sure that the elections are free, fair and safe against corruption. Any compromise on the secrecy and security of the vote by adopting an untested technology in a hurry will entail serious consequences, not only for the ECP but also for the credibility of the electoral process.
(Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat)