Brookfield Plaza in Springfield of the Virginia state houses large shops and restaurants — a marketplace where South Asians are quite visible. Especially for the Pakistani community, the plaza is a hands-down one-stop hangout place. Whether it’s a wedding party, a press conference, or a protest of any kind, tons of Pakistani-Americans gather there. Even at night, you can spot bands of young and old enjoying their evening walks in the plaza’s large parking lot; or sitting outside closed shops reminiscing and enthusiastically debating politics in Pakistan.
Naturally, these groups and their members openly and proudly affiliate themselves with one political party or the other from back home. They have established local chapters of almost all political parties and often drive membership campaigns. Interestingly, the frequency and regularity of these party members at the plaza also reflects which political party has come into power. For example, from 2008 onwards, Pakistan People’s Party members were seen more in numbers. In 2013 and afterwards, PML-N members would hold meetings and get togethers more than others.
Now it’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s turn. I must mention here that PTI supporters are in overwhelming majority and have a stronghold here. Each time, they set up their own version of “Election Monitoring Cells” to watch the special Pakistani transmission together. They even provided telephones to attendees so they could call friends and family in Pakistan to convince them to vote for PTI.
The party’s Virginia chapter president, Junaid Bashir, and other known party supporters like Chaudhry Muhammad Akbar have been active for quite some time, pleading community members to demand voting rights for themselves. They were the first ones to raise the issue. In the last election cycle, a large number of PTI supporters flew to Pakistan just to vote for Imran Khan.
Though the PTI lost back then, the group became more adamant that not every Pakistani living abroad could fly to and back from Pakistan for the purpose but since they want to contribute to the political system, the Pakistani government should find a way allowing them to vote.
Their closest contact for the purpose and the very person who filed petition on their behalf to the Supreme Court, Barrister Dawood Ghaznavi claims that the case runs on establishing the “fundamental” right of overseas Pakistanis to vote.
Ghaznavi, who also chairs the Welfare Society for Overseas Pakistani Rights, says that Article 17 of the Constitution insists upon the federal government to extend the facility of voting to overseas Pakistanis in the national elections as well as local bodies, and such right cannot be denied on technical grounds.
Once the implementation process is resolved and tested, overseas Pakistanis could make a major impact in the parliament — to the extent of possibly altering results in significant constituencies. This could be a reason that opponents like Maulana Fazlur Rehman have called the move a ‘conspiracy’ that would allow foreign lobbies to meddle in Pakistan’s politics.
There are others who believe that dual nationals should not be allowed to vote. Khawaja Ashraf, who is former president of Pakistan American Congress — a group that advocates friendly relations between the US and Pakistan — says that dual nationals do not face the changing ground realities in Pakistan. “Overseas Pakistanis are not directly affected by domestic policies either,” he says adding that the move would divide the community as they already don’t assimilate in societies they’re living in and their political participation in the country of their residence suffers equally.
Ashraf thinks that since most Pakistanis in Western countries gain dual citizenship over time so their connection to Pakistan gets reduced to sending funds to their family members. “The argument holds ground if voters are only Pakistani citizens and are not dual nationals. The move might be good for Pakistanis in the Middle East but otherwise the demand is flawed,” he adds.
Overseas Pakistanis take pride in that the money they send back home contributes to the foreign exchange but the fact is that that hardly compensates for a vibrant national economy. Also, overseas Pakistanis especially dual nationals might not transfer funds to Pakistan if their family connections are absent.
PTI’s community leaders provide a rather emotional explanation. “We’re not physically there in Pakistan, but our hearts and souls are still there, our families are there, and we want to have a voice to bring change to that old rotten system,” says Junaid Bashir.
Chaudhry Akbar further demands that overseas Pakistanis should not only be allowed to vote but also be able to contest elections. “Overseas migrant networks even help bridge gaps and at time push for foreign policy interests of home country,” he believes.
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Ghaznavi supports the argument and adds that the territorial concept of citizenship was challenged long ago which then introduced a new social phenomenon known as “political trans-nationalism”. It interprets long distance relationships between citizens and their states as a sign that it is not the citizenship but the states that have become de-territorialised. He says that “dual citizenship, which was once considered problematic, was now looked at as an opportunity that needed to be negotiated from various standpoints, ranging from simple pragmatic tolerance to active encouragement.”
Establishing a social contract across territories brings changes in nations’ political and economic history, he says, adding that there is no fixed social contract that exists between Pakistan and its diaspora. “No strategic or consistent thought has been given to involve diaspora within the country in order to help articulate a national policy,” Ghaznavi says, stepping out of a restaurant at the Brookfield Plaza, “Giving voting rights to overseas Pakistanis could just be a step in that direction.”