By Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
LAST week, the parliament of Pakistan once again legislated about Overseas Pakistanis (OP) ‘right to vote’ in Pakistani elections and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to conduct pilot projects ‘to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility’ of their voting. The law, however, does not bind the ECP to a particular time frame.
The latest legislation brings the efforts to enable Overseas Pakistanis’ to vote to where these stood in 2017 when the Elections Act was passed and ECP was asked through Section 94 to conduct pilot projects and report to the government. ECP did conduct a pilot project and submitted the report but, sadly, the parliament could never debate it.
Earlier, it was President Asif Zardari of Pakistan Peoples’ Party who, on the advice of the caretaker government, had promulgated the first legislation to enable Overseas Pakistanis to vote through an ordinance in May 2013 – just a few days before the general election. It was not a serious move but fulfilled a formality to conform to the direction of the Supreme Court. The Ordinance died a natural death after four months.
Imran Khan’s PTI was quite passionate about enabling Overseas Pakistanis to vote but it took almost three years after coming into government to promulgate an ordinance in May 2021 to make it mandatory for the ECP to complete arrangements for Overseas Pakistanis to vote in the next general election. This was the third time that a legislation was brought in to facilitate their vote but, sadly, a broad-based multi-party consensus could not be reached on the subject in the parliament. Had PTI initiated the legislation soon after coming into power in August 2018 and made efforts to take other political parties on board, the arrangements for Overseas Pakistanis’ vote might have materialized by this time. It was the lack of agreement with the opposition and ECP reservations about the Internet-based voting system tht made it very difficult to complete arrangements for overseas Pakistanis’ voting before the general election of 2023.
Despite these differences and practical difficulties, the PTI government passed an Act of Parliament about Overseas Pakistanis vote in the joint session of the parliament in November 2021 to give permanence to the Ordinance earlier promulgated. Sadly, this fourth effort to legislate on Overseas Pakistanis’ vote also did not prove successful as the new coalition government undid the law by passing the fifth legislation in May 2022.
Despite these numerous attempts to pass a law and a lot more efforts to seek remedy from the superior courts over the past 30 years, Overseas Pakistanis have not been able to get the facility to vote in a Pakistani election from their countries of residence.
These are numerous estimates about the number of non-resident Pakistanis, generally called Overseas Pakistanis (OPs), working and living abroad but the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) had registered about 9 million such voters as of December 2020 which constituted about 8% of the total registered Pakistani voters. This is a huge number by any standard and constitutes the fifth largest number of diaspora voters in the world. Their spread in about 130 countries, according to a UNDP report, further adds to the logistic challenges of voting from abroad.
Postal Ballots and Internet Voting seem to be the only two feasible options for voting by overseas voters. Political parties are generally skeptical about the trustworthiness of the postal ballots because these may be manipulated while in transit. Given the fact that Overseas Pakistani voters can impact the election outcome in as many as 150 National Assembly constituencies out of the total 266, the stakes become really high for the contesting political parties.
Internet voting seems to be another feasible option but the state of technology at present doesn’t guarantee fool proof security and privacy of the vote. The experts believe that the technology may develop to the desired comfort level in about one to two years. A recent statement of NADRA chairman in the Lahore High Court also pointed in this direction.
The international trends indicate that the diaspora population is on the rise around the world and more and more countries are making efforts to provide the facility to vote from abroad to their non-resident voters. After some initial reluctance, India and Bangladesh also seem to be moving in this direction. It is therefore important that the ECP makes focused efforts to provide a technology-based secure system for overseas voters at the earliest.
In the meantime, the government seems to be more inclined to provide reserved seats for Overseas Pakistanis’ representatives in the Senate, National Assembly and probably even provincial assemblies of Pakistan.
(The writer is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT; Tweets at @ABMPildat)