Better late than never: 16 petitions filed in Supreme Court for Pakistani expats voting rights

PKONWEB Report– The Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan on Friday accepted 16 petitions regarding overseas Pakistanis’ right to vote in the elections– next elections are due in early May.

A three-member bench, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar and comprising Justice Musheer Alam and Justice Sajjad Shah, will take up the case on January 10.

The petitions, filed by members of civil society, appeal that the state set up appropriate infrastructure so that overseas Pakistanis can cast their vote in elections held in Pakistan.

Around nine million Pakistanis live abroad– mostly in oil-rich Gulf region with the highest number (2 million) living in Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, two almost identical constitutional petitions were filed before the Supreme Court. One of the petitions was filed by PTI chairman Imran Khan seeking court directions for the government and the ECP to make arrangements enabling overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right of franchise. The Supreme Court in its judgement of April 29, 2013 disposed of both petitions with the observation that “… let the ECP make all possible efforts to achieve the object … so the expatriates may also participate in the forthcoming general elections …”.

The then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ruled that no legislation was required to give voting rights to overseas Pakistanis and went on to say that elections could not be termed free and fair unless expats were allowed to vote. He had ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to take concrete steps to enable participation of overseas Pakistanis in the polls.

The PPP-led government then promulgated the Electoral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance, 2013 on May 9, 2013, which, though a mere formality performed just two days ahead of the general election, was the first law on the statute books to provide for the facility of out-of-country voting to overseas Pakistanis and to allow them to cast their votes in Pakistani embassies, high commissions and consulates abroad. The ordinance not only remained unimplemented but was also allowed to lapse in September 2013 as the incoming government chose not to pass it as an act of parliament.

ECP was unable to set up proper infrastructure to enable overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes in the 2013 general election.

The draft elections bill, 2017, carries a provision for voting by overseas Pakistanis but leaves the time frame and extent of its implementation to the ECP. Convener of the sub-committee of the Parliament on electoral reforms and Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid later told reporters then that the overseas Pakistanis under the plan would be provided with a code and they would be able to cast their votes using a designated mobile phone. He said the committee agreed to give the responsibility of registration of overseas Pakistanis and the operation related to the voting exercise to Nadra.

However, in November 2017, the ECP told a parliamentary committee that overseas Pakistanis will not be able to vote in the 2018 general elections.

A day before the petitions were accepted, the ECP (on Thursday) submitted a report to the National Assembly, admitting that the trial methods used by the body for overseas voting did not prove to be effective. ECP said it had experimented using postal ballots and televoting in London, Glasgow, Manchester, Bradford, Dubai, Riyadh and New York.

Nadra officials said in August that it would require registration of overseas Pakistanis and their biometric fingerprints.

Voting has been an emotive and long-standing issue for some nine million overseas Pakistanis scattered around 140 countries. Together, they constitute the world’s sixth largest diaspora. Not that they do not have the right to vote, as is generally presented in the media or public discourse; any Pakistani citizen who qualifies as a voter has the right to vote irrespective of his or her place of residence.

At issue is the facility to cast one’s ballot abroad instead of the national or provincial assembly constituency where the vote is registered and where ordinarily the electorate votes. This is a facility which is not available even to voters residing within Pakistan but away from their constituencies. The current election laws of Pakistan allow the facility of postal ballot only to government officers posted away from their constituencies, to their immediate family and to prisoners.

The government and the election authorities have been receiving requests from overseas Pakistanis for the facility to vote from abroad for more than a decade.

Why has this dream not materialized in Pakistan even after the lapse of a quarter of a century and despite repeated observations and orders of the judiciary, extensive deliberations of the legislature and serious efforts by the ECP assisted by ministries for foreign affairs and overseas Pakistanis?

A perception of complexity marred by capability and capacity issue underline the issue and lingering distrust of the electoral system further complicates the quest for voting from abroad, say several observers.

One of the findings of an independent feasibility study in 2016 conducted by the Parliament with the help of UNDP said: “We find that any remote voting solution using currently available technology — whether postal, internet, telephone, or proxy — will lack the necessary electoral integrity checks to preserve the credibility of an election result.”

According to Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of Pildat, a Pakistani public policy think tank, “given the prevailing weak trust in our electoral system, further overloading the ECP with such a complex operation as out-of-country voting will not be wise. We are already late where the 2018 general election is concerned, as the legal framework has not yet been passed by parliament. Sadly, overseas Pakistanis will have to wait beyond the next elections to cast their vote from their place of residence abroad.”

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