NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 8

Voting right to Pakistanis living abroad

In a landmark development, about 9 million overseas Pakistanis have been allowed to vote in elections in their homeland. The right is a befitting reward for workers, who remit on average $2.5 billion every month and sent back an all time high of $29.4 billion in the last fiscal year. The remittances are projected to increase even further in the current fiscal year.

However, the election process will become muddier and complaints of rigging from opposition parties will rise if the system fails to work flawlessly. The opposition has already accused the government of planning to “steal” the next elections through electronic voting machines (EVMs). Undoubtedly, the move will increase the vote bank of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), as an overwhelming majority of expatriates support it, though its popularity has significantly decreased in the country as people are upset with rising prices and bad governance.

Experts have also expressed reservations over the proposed voting system for overseas Pakistanis, saying it was insecure. As the margin of victory in 24 constituencies in the 2018 elections was less than the number of invalid votes in a constituency, they say estimated 40-45 constituencies would have a margin of victory less than the number of votes of oversees Pakistanis, and any hacking of the system would have potential to influence the polls.

It is an admitted fact that elections in Pakistan have never been fair and the new system will not allay the fears of rigging. Experts say the system has been launched in a hurry and its credibility and transparency will remain doubtful, while the government is adamant that overseas Pakistanis will be able to vote in the 2023 general election. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Hussain said that practical steps were being taken to ensure that overseas Pakistanis used their right of vote in the next election.

Earlier, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had also raised 37 objections to the proposed use of EVMs. In a document submitted to the Senate, the ECP warned that the machine was tampering-prone and its software could easily be altered. “It is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest,” noted the document. It said time was too short for a large-scale procurement and deployment of EVMs and imparting training to a massive number of operators, adding that it was not advisable to introduce EVMs nationwide in one go. It said the polls on one day as required under the law would be nearly impossible. The ECP also cited other issues linked with the use of EVMs, including lack of ballot secrecy, lack of capacity at all levels and lack of security and chain of custody for the machines at rest and during transportation. It also pointed out that there would be no evidence available in case of an election dispute. The ECP noted that data integration and configuration issues might crop up due to court orders at the eleventh hour regarding a change in ballot papers. The commission said there was an absence of a dust and humid-free controlled temperature environment warehouse for storage and a huge learning curve was required for technical operators, adding that there was no consensus among the stakeholders on EVMs which was also not financially feasible. The ECP said EVMs could not prevent low voters’ turnout, low women’s turnout, misuse of state authority, election fraud, electronic ballot stuffing, vote buying, the law and order situation, dishonest polling staff, widespread political and electoral violence and abuse of state resources. It warned that in case of introduction of the technology in haste, the conduct of free, fair, credible and transparent elections as per the Constitution was not possible. It also pointed out that Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy and Finland had abandoned the use of EVMs due to lack of security.

The Internet Voting Task Force (IVTF), formed by the ECP in 2018 to conduct a technical audit of the system, had identified numerous security vulnerabilities and oversights and advised against the 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 9 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.

Main opposition parties have also opposed the system. They say the government has taken the decision in haste and it will pave the way for rigging in the next election.

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 9 million Pakistanis live abroad and if the system is hacked, it can alter the results.

However, the biggest beneficiaries of the new voting system are overseas Pakistanis and the PTI. 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, he will have to substantially improve governance and performance to attract voters living in the country in the next election. They are extremely annoyed at his policies which have increased inflation and unemployment. He will have to appease them to win a second term, which looks impossible now.