In a landmark development, about 7.9 million overseas Pakistanis have been allowed to vote in elections in their homeland. The right is a befitting reward for workers, who remit an average $2.7 billion every year and sent back an all time high of $5.5 billion in 2016. It will also increase the vote bank of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), as an overwhelming majority of expatriates support it. However, the election process will become muddier and complaints of election rigging from opposition parties will rise if the system failed to work flawlessly.
According to experts, elections in Pakistan have never been fair and the new system will increase chances of rigging. They say the system has been launched in a hurry and its credibility and transparency will remain doubtful, as the Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF), formed by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in April to conduct a technical audit of the system, had identified numerous security vulnerabilities and oversights and advised against use of the e-voting system. It had pointed out that though other countries had employed e-voting systems, yet none had an overseas population as large as Pakistan. Nearly six million citizens living abroad are eligible voters and the huge number can influence the outcome of the elections and in case of a system hack, it would have an adverse effect on the formation and composition of the next government.
The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has launched its i-voting website and Pakistanis living abroad can cast their votes even in upcoming by-polls on October 14. By-elections will be held in 41 constituencies for both National and Provincial Assemblies. The results will set the tone for the next general election. Overseas voters had to register themselves on the ECP website from September 1 to 15. The voter pass, a unique pass code provided by the system to the registered voters, will be issued between October 10-14 and they can cast votes online from 8am till 5pm(Pakistan Time). Only those citizens, who are already registered voters in Pakistan, will be able to exercise their right to franchise. The ECP has issued strict guidelines for the confidentiality of the voter pass, as voters are required not to delete the email containing the code and maintain its secrecy. To ensure credibility and avoid misuse, the voter pass will be issued sometime close to the polling day to minimise potential risks. Even after the voter enters the voter pass, the system will undergo another verification process to ascertain their identity. The ECP has also uploaded separate video tutorials in Urdu and English languages as well as step-by-step material to guide voters through the registration and voting process on its website.
Experts are also skeptical about the new system. According to Ahmed Bilal Mehboob of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), an NGO working for promotion of democracy in the country, “The system can be easily subjected to cyber attacks or manipulation. Besides obvious risks, the registration and voting procedures point towards discrepancies. Firstly, a large number of Pakistanis, especially in the Middle East, will be excluded from the voting process as they would not have an email address. There is also nothing that can ensure that a person is freely using their right to vote online and not being coerced by someone. The exercise is good for experimentation but its credibility is questionable.” Citing similar concerns, Sarwar Bari of the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) said that the system failed to provide secrecy of the ballot, which was a violation of the Clause 94 of the Elections Act 2017 and Article 226 of the Constitution.
Main opposition parties have also opposed the system. The Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) said the government had taken the decision in haste and paved the way of rigging. In a declaration after a meeting, the party demanded the Election Commission of Pakistan take all parties on board on the issue and satisfy technical experts. The meeting, also attended by leaders of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance of five religious parties, called the i-voting system “technologically flawed.” Supporting voting rights to all Pakistanis abroad, it said experts had found the system to be weak and unreliable. “It will not be possible to hold fair elections in the presence of the grave reservations. Implementation of such a faulty system without taking all parties into confidence will be a violation of our rights,” the PML-N said in a statement. Former Senate Chairman and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader Raza Rabbani alleged the system was being introduced to rig and manipulate elections. “The i-voting system being put into place is flawed from its inception and has the ingredients of becoming a tool in the hands of forces that may want to manipulate elections in Pakistan. A task force, set up by the Election Commission of Pakistan itself, has expressed reservations over the move to allow overseas Pakistanis to use their right to vote through the Internet. It is true that i-voting is used in other countries, but no other country has such a large number of citizens living in foreign countries like Pakistan. Nearly six million Pakistanis live abroad and if the system is hacked, it can alter the results,” he explained.
The biggest beneficiaries of the i-voting system are overseas Pakistanis and the PTI, which had moved the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the right. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been popular with them since his days of cricket and building a cancer hospital. It is natural that most Pakistanis living abroad will vote for his party. However, the problem is that the ECP has decided to stick to the Results Transmission System (RTS) for the by-elections as well as all constituencies where re-elections will take place. The system had crashed or slowed down during the general election, which created doubts about its fairness and credibility. If the system crashes again, it will also leave the results of by-polls doubtful. It is the responsibility of the government to devise a system for elections, which is so credible that no party could point out flaws in it and accept election results without any reservation. It will be a great service to democracy and the country to resolve the issue, once and for all.