IPRI – Islamabad Policy Research Institute

Disenfranchising diaspora is devoid of Constitution

No taxation without representation was the glorious stance that changed Westminster governance for good. From the English Civil in 1642 to Rosa Parks adamancy in 1955 to give up her bus seat in Alabama, legality of segregation has always been questioned. But, unfortunately, we as a nation are too late in learning from history. Pakistan these days has a parallel to it, as more than 10 million expatriates are denied their fundamental right to vote, and that too after being promised the same through an act of law.

The politics of exigency accompanied with disgusting scorn for the foreign exchange remitters, on the part of the PMLN-led ruling coalition, is extremely in bad taste. Merely because the overseas Pakistanis appear to be political inclined towards the PTI, their constitutionally guaranteed and duly legislated right has been usurped. This is not only in contravention to the spirit of democracy but is also devoid of constitution as per the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

PLD 2018 of the apex court under then Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar as well as Justice Umar Ata Bandial and Justice Ijaz ul Ahsan had ruled that in line with Article 17 of the Constitution, there are no two opinions about the fact that a citizen’s right to vote is sacrosanct and paramount. It also observed that there is no distinction between the citizens living within Pakistan or outside the country, with regard to the right to vote. It went on to observe that they cannot be denied the same rights on technical grounds, i.e. logistic arrangements made outside the country for casting votes. The learned bench insisted upon the Federal Government to extend the facility of voting to overseas Pakistanis in parliamentary as well as local bodies elections.

The above legal citation was meant to establish indispensability of the fundamental right. The fact that the same has been snatched after being granted is outrageous. The Election Reforms Bill 2017 not only enhanced the powers of the ECP but also empowered it to introduce technology i.e. electronic voting machines (EVM) and I-voting for overseas Pakistanis. The PTI government in 2021 legislated through an ordinance and granted overseas Pakistanis the right to vote. But out of the blue, apparently in political vengeance, the government of Shehbaz Sharif has reversed the law at the cost of offending the expatriates.

This was an unwise political decision, to say the least. It has surely been taken in utter disregard to the services and contribution of expatriates. The overseas Pakistanis are the backbone of our economy and have acted as a cushion to stay afloat in these testing times of economic turmoil. A minimum incoming estimate puts it at more than $29 billion per annum. Isn’t it ridiculous and mean to bank at their benevolence but deny them their right to representation on assumption that they are pitched on the other side of the political divide?

The legislation done by former Prime Minister Imran Khan had furthered the concept of oneness. It gave an added impetus of participation to the diaspora. Though there were some inherent discrepancies, as far as EVM’s abrupt introduction was concerned, that could have been sorted out in due course of time. Annulling the entire initiative by driving on a political vendetta was an act of ill-will and will surely promote parochialism.

Ours is a feudal society, and unfortunately the electorate live and breathe under lingual, ethnic and sectarian compulsions. We are glued to vested interests, and have hardly risen above petty considerations to make a national fervour felt. In such an environment, democracy and elections are nothing but routine useless exercises to bestow at the helm of affairs those who wield power from black money and a social strata that is corrupt and divisive.

This is where true reforms are needed. But our myopic political lens stops short of truly legislating one. More than 100 countries have given the right to vote to their overseas citizens. Why shouldn’t we? Our expatriates are a lifeline for the economy; snubbing them so ruthlessly is contemptuous. This dichotomy is questionable. Reversing the right to vote must be contested.

Note: This article appeared in Tribune, dated 01 June 2022.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.


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