General Elections 2018: No mechanism in sight for expats to vote



By Numan Khan

LAHORE: Despite repeated hue and cry about voting rights to overseas Pakistanis, voters living abroad will not be able to vote while being out of Pakistan in the upcoming General Elections 2018.

The issue had attracted much media attention ahead of 2013 General Elections but still despite passage of five years a safe, practical and acceptable mechanism and related law are nowhere in sight.

Currently, voting from abroad is not permissible under the law. However, overseas Pakistanis who are present in Pakistan at the time of election can cast their vote at the polling station concerned if they are registered as voters.

In its second five year strategic plan (2014-2018), the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had set a goal to develop a practical and operational plan for out of country voting for overseas Pakistani voters.

The section 94 (1) of the Election Act 2017 passed on October 2, 2017 reads: “The Commission (Election Commission of Pakistan) may conduct pilot projects for voting by Overseas Pakistanis in bye 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 from the commencement of a session of a House after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both Houses of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament)”.

No pilot project so far

However, the ECP failed to conduct a single pilot project despite the fact at least five bye-elections have been held so far in the meanwhile–two on National Assembly seats and three on the seats of provincial assemblies.

The overseas Pakistanis play a key role in the economy of the country by boosting foreign exchange reserves. On average Pakistani workers remit over $18 billion from abroad annually. According to Pakistan’s Overseas Pakistanis Foundation (OPF) expatriate Pakistanis remitted $20 billion in the closing financial year of 2015-16.

In January 2018, the issue of right of vote for expatriates was also taken up by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on petitions moved by the members of the civil society. The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) had informed the court that software was being developed which could enable expatriates to vote. The apex court had given a time to NADRA till mid April. However, even the software develops it cannot be used in the upcoming general elections keeping in view the time required for piloting the project and getting approval from the parliament which is going to complete its tenure by May, 2018.

Provincial Election Commissioner (Punjab) Mr Sharifullah while talking to Data Stories claimed that the ECP was trying to devise a mechanism for overseas voters and more likely it would be able to make one before the general elections. However, he also clarified that such mechanism would not be used for overall elections but only in few constituencies on trial basis. He said process will be like mock exercise and would not affect the election results of those constituencies.

Provincial Election Commissioner (Punjab) Mr Sharifullah.–DS photo

Talking about the legality of overseas voting, Mr Sharifullah said after trial the ECP would submit a report to the government and later government will make a law through Parliament for implementation of overseas voting.  To a question he said the ECP had not yet initiated any correspondence with its provincial offices regarding overseas voting.

What expatriates and parliamentarians say

In a WhatsApp call with Data Stories, Muhammad Akbar from United States said overseas Pakistanis wanted to directly take part in the country’s democratic process by exercising their right to vote while being away from the country. “We have been demanding our right to vote since long but to no avail,” he added. He said there was prevailing perception that the rulers did not want to grant this right to overseas Pakistanis as they feared Pakistani diaspora abroad would never vote them.

Similarly, Farhan Gull, an expatriate working in a bank of Gulf when asked through a Facebook conversation about his right to vote said overseas Pakistanis were concerned about the political developments back home and wanted to play their role. “I want to play a role in my country’s political process though I am away, but I can’t and this is sad,” Farhan said. For him vote is not just a vote but a sense of ownership.

Office of the Provincial Election Commission (Punjab) Lahore.--DS photo
Office of the Provincial Election Commission (Punjab) Lahore.–DS photo

Like expatriates, people in Pakistan including parliamentarians are also all for voting rights to their fellows who are out of the country.

A young parliamentarian Jahangir Khanzada, who is Punjab Minister for Sports, told Data Stories that the overseas Pakistanis had great contribution in the development of the country. “They send billions in remittances annually and such stakeholders cannot be deprived of their right to vote,” he said and added “I am not sure whether overseas Pakistanis would be able to cast their vote in general elections 2018 but the government is working to resolve this issue.”

Similarly, Punjab Minister for Irrigation Amanat Ullah Khan Shadi Khel talking to Data Stories said it was the right of Pakistani expatriate to cast his/her vote and it should be given to them as soon as possible.

However, Inamullah Khan Niazi an independent MPA from Punjab told Data Stories that he had doubts that government would allow overseas voters to cast their vote in 2018 elections.

Talking to Data Stories, Nabila Hakim Ali Khan, a parliamentarian from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) said the government was not serious about giving rights to overseas Pakistanis. The government feared that millions of overseas would not cast their votes in its favour because of its policies if they were given a right to vote, she alleged.  She criticized the government and said the incumbent government was ignoring the overseas Pakistanis who were investing billions in Pakistan.

What ECP says

Additional Director General Public Relation at ECP Haroon Khan while commenting on the issue told Data Stories that there were around 8 million overseas Pakistanis living in different countries of the world. Here in Pakistan these expatriates were registered in 342 different national constituencies and further 728 constituencies on provincial level.

“We are trying to find a foolproof way to hold overseas voting but it would not be applicable in this election and will be tested in few constituencies having no impact on election results.” ECP Additional Director General Public Relation.

“The ECP is in constant coordination with NADRA for development of software through which we would be able test overseas voting,” Haroon said.  The only option we have is internet voting which is not secure. It seems easy to develop software and conduct overseas voting but at the same time the credibility of the whole process and the Commission is on stake as the internet is not safe and viable for voting.

Haroon said that the there were representatives of 18 political parties in election reforms committee which passed Election Act after two and half years.

All the stakeholders were aware of the complications of internet and overseas voting so they asked the ECP to first test it on trial basis and then send a report back to the Parliament for final approval.