As Pakistan approaches historic elections in less than a month, a strong push is under way to include more than four million overseas Pakistanis in the Middle East, Canada, U.S. and the UK in the voting process.
The diaspora is a key voting bloc that could make the difference in who forms the next government and the daunting task of tackling rising militancy, urban crime, chronic poverty and energy shortages.
But the push to facilitate voting for overseas Pakistanis has run in to a wall of logistics and is likely to fail, leaving millions of overseas Pakistanis as spectators to a critical election.
“We want to [provide voting facilities] but there are many difficulties. The bottom line is it’s not possible at this time,” Khurshid Alam, deputy director of public relations at the Election Commission of Pakistan, told the Globe and Mail on Friday.
Implementing a smooth and transparent voting system in time for the May 11 election was always going to be a difficult task. But the election commission has come under tremendous pressure in recent days from the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the politician who submitted the petition to the court in the first place – Imran Khan, the Oxford-educated former cricket superstar and leader of the Pakistan Movement for Justice party, or Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
“The Supreme Court has been pushing hard – little realizing that it is a nightmare of logistics,” said Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, executive director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency.
But the potential impact of these voters in the 272 national seats up for grabs would have been significant.
“On average there will be 7,000 overseas Pakistani votes in each national assembly constituency. That is a large number that can make the difference between victory and defeat,” said Mr. Mehboob.
Pakistan has achieved a critical milestone: a civilian government has completed a full five-year term for the first time since Pakistan was created in 1947. Free and fair elections next month would see the first transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another and a turning point in a country where the military has regularly intervened.
Under current electoral rules, overseas Pakistanis are permitted to vote if they are registered and choose to travel to Pakistan and cast their ballot. However, there is no law requiring election officials to organize voting facilities abroad.
“It is a fact that the Pakistanis living in other countries are our ambassadors. They are sending billions of dollars every year from abroad which was a major source of running our expenditure. But unfortunately, the government institutions have been denying them their basic right for which the overseas Pakistanis are feeling detached,” said Mr. Khan, according to Dawn News.
While Mr. Khan has kept up the pressure on the election commission this week, the issue of facilitating voting for overseas Pakistanis is more than a matter of principle.
It is a matter of political urgency for him and his party. Mr. Khan still predicts a “tsunami” of change that will deliver his party to victory. But some political observers believe his party has peaked early and faces a difficult task next month. The overseas Pakistani vote is critical to his party’s fortunes.
“[Imran Khan’s party] believes that overseas Pakistanis are most likely to vote for them. I think to some extent that is true,” said Mr. Mehboob.
Mr. Khan is looking for a breakthrough with the help of under-30 voters who represent 34 per cent of the 86 million registered voters. More widely, under-30s are a ballooning demographic representing 65 per cent of Pakistan’s 181 million people.
Mr. Khan’s party has also established a network of supporters outside Pakistan who see him as the so-called change candidate and support his promise to root out corruption in 90 days if elected. He has called for an end to U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas – a position that he claims led to him being pulled of a New York-bound flight from Toronto last October for questioning by U.S. immigration officials over his drones stance.
Of the 4.5 million registered overseas Pakistani voters, the vast majority – or 3.5 million – reside in the Middle East, according to the election commission, as reported in The Express Tribune. Most of remaining registered voters live in Canada, U.S., and UK.
Khurshid Alam of Pakistan’s election commission said that putting in place polling stations in other countries would have been very difficult at this late stage.
For Saudi Arabia’s 1.6 million overseas Pakistanis, Mr. Alam said it would require permission first from a kingdom that does not hold elections. Up to 2,000 polling stations would be needed in Saudi Arabia alone, he added.
“Why would they allow a democratic process [in their country] for other citizens when they don’t allow it for their own citizens?” asked Mr. Alam.
But the main issue was the logistical challenge of setting up the new voting system – whether it is a postal ballot system or an electronic voting system – with less than a month to go before voting day. “Our full concentration is on the elections here [in Pakistan],” he said.
A new electronic voting system had been touted as an option, but it also carried risks.
“Unless we test [the new voting software] and test it as a pilot [project], we can’t employ it in an election,” said Mr. Mehboob, of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency. He added that any voting system would also have deal with the complexity of each overseas Pakistani voting in one of the 272 national assembly contests and one of the 577 provincial assembly seats where he or she is registered.
The Pakistan Peoples Party, led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in 2007, won the most seats in the 2008 election.
But the PPP-led government has faced the rise of the Pakistan Taliban in the tribal areas and struggled to thwart terrorist attacks on the country’s major cities. Karachi – the country’s commercial hub and most populous city – has descended in to targeted killings and daily violence.
Gas and electricity shortages across the country mean scheduled power outages in major cities for homes and businesses. Economic growth has slowed and foreign direct investment has shrunk.
The main challenge to the PPP comes from the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and led by Nawaz Sharif. The former prime minister was driven out of power in 1999 in a coup staged by General Pervez Musharraf, who ruled the country before stepping down as president in 2008.