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Not a right question

Now that a possibility has been created for them to vote, a new debate has sprung up: should overseas Pakistanis have the right to vote?

Not a right question

The Election Commission of Pakistan and, lately, the Supreme Court of Pakistan have toyed with the idea of voting for overseas Pakistanis for some time. Now that they have finally agreed to making arrangements for this, another debate has sprung up on social media, questioning the whole idea. The replies to a neutral researcher’s innocuous (some might call it ‘loaded’) question “Should overseas Pakistanis have the right to vote in elections in Pakistan” show how divided we are on the issue. And much of the criticism is not confined to the transparency of voting process.

The phrase ‘right to vote’ is interesting because as citizens of this country, they have this right; yes even as dual nationals. That they have not been voting thus far, unless they were both committed and resourceful to catch a flight back home on the day of the election, was because there was no procedure that allowed them to vote from where they were.

Now, with internet and all, a possibility has been created that allows them to register as voters (with NICOP and passport) and vote in the upcoming by-elections. Note the general election was considered too massive an exercise to allow for any new experimentation with the electronic system.

But instead of questioning the viability of this exercise, especially in terms of transparency, it seems the bona fide citizens of Pakistan doubt the loyalty of overseas Pakistanis on many different counts. The rejection is often blanket, putting them all under one demographic, when actually there are so many different kinds of them. The critics later make amends asking to impose what they consider “reasonable restrictions” before the ‘overseas-ers’ are allowed to vote.

A major part of their scorn is reserved for ‘dual’ nationals. To a degree, it seems, this is shaped by the state’s response and some recent political developments. So while the constitution [Article 63 (1) (c)] stipulates that a dual national cannot be a member of the parliament, there has been a lot of media hype this year about the Supreme Court taking notice of bureaucrats who are dual nationals; some reports also appeared about a few judges of higher courts holding a dual nationality. The laws do not bar the latter two categories from performing their duty, so the court has thankfully restricted its censure to only stopping them from hiding their nationality status.

The argument that overseas Pakistanis should not have the right to vote is not convincing enough. It does not appeal to the moral and normative sense.

It might be useful to unpack this grouse of the locals against Pakistani citizens settled and working abroad. A lot of it is not too tangible but must be addressed one way or the other. On one level, it is believed they are unaware of the ‘reality’ of Pakistan, being physically away. This claim was not strictly true even in the past but cannot be accepted in this age of real-time connectivity. That they will be able to vote with one click in exactly Pakistan’s real voting time shows how preposterous it is.

Then, as said earlier, an exception is created by some for those who are not dual nationals. It needs to be understood that this almost word of abuse, ‘dual national’, is a legally accepted category. Pakistan has a dual nationality agreement with 19 countries, including the UK and the USA. I wonder how many people know that commonwealth citizens who transfer Rs5 million of foreign exchange can become citizens of Pakistan (I am assuming India is an exception).

The dual nationals too are of various shades: they vary between those who went away for economic reasons, as a consequence of political and religious persecution, for their own and children’s education etc. While their monetary contribution in foreign exchange reserves in times of economic crunch is often counted in, in the present context it is clearly spelt out they send this money to “their relatives” and not to the country. They have no ‘stakes’ in the country, it is stated. Notwithstanding that they are by definition ‘dual’ nationals who haven’t renounced their Pakistani citizenship yet.

They don’t pay taxes in Pakistan is another charge that justifies disenfranchising them. Some suggest this could be offset by imposing some restrictions like them having property or business in Pakistan and becoming taxpayers here.

Note also that these restrictions do not hold if you live within the bounds of this country. For instance, you are entitled to vote the day you turn 18 which, as someone noted, is not the age you start paying taxes. Besides, the number of conscious taxpayers in this country is also shamefully low. Look also at the Pakistanis sending their money and buying property abroad.

As a matter of fact, it was restrictions like these that were taken care of under universal suffrage which is therefore a much celebrated gain.

Think, hypothetically, that the host country imposes this restriction on residents of Pakistani origin that since these people send their money back home, they should not be allowed to vote in the host country. Will we not then claim how it amounts to discrimination or human rights violation?

The argument that overseas Pakistanis should not have the right to vote is not convincing enough. It does not appeal to the moral and normative sense. Many of these people were forced to leave the country in the absence of economic opportunities, a fact recognised by the state and therefore forms a key policy prescription for successive governments.

The intangibles that don’t usually count include how emotionally invested they are in their country, at times more than the people living here, how they re-create their own little Pakistans, long for their language and culture, face racism, act as ambassadors of their country and so on.

Why can’t we assume that Pakistanis who say they want to vote in an election must and do care for the country? Perhaps we need to make the process credible, not shun them.

This is an edited version of what appeared in print. The article has only been edited for language

Farah Zia

One comment

  • Good to see someone from the mainstream media finally standing up to defend the “right to vote” of the overseas Pakistanis . There should never have been two thoughts about it in the first place. The system should have been created long ago to either cast the vote at the counsulates, by mail or online ever since the technology has been readily available.
    The overseas Pakistanis face a dilemma. They are often considered a cash cow and called upon to invest in Pakistan and send the much needed foreign exchange. It’s an idiotic, naive notion that the money they send home only serves their families, ignoring the fact that it bolsters the Forex reserves of the cash strapped nation besides adding to the general prosperity in the society. The motherland owes this basic courtesy to the overseas Pakistanis of having their say from abroad when it comes to choosing the leadership of the nation. Kudos to government for finally making it happen and to the writer for taking up this core issue.

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