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Lawmakers reluctant to sign off on postal balloting for overseas Pakistanis

Lawmakers reluctant to sign off on postal balloting for overseas Pakistanis

ISLAMABAD: The possibility of tampering and manipulation of ballots seems to be the only major hurdle keeping overseas Pakistanis from exercising their right to franchise in the country’s elections.

A team of senior Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) officials, during a briefing before a national assembly panel, admitted that postal balloting appeared to be the most feasible option. However, several lawmakers had qualms over the process, but could offer no alternative foolproof system that would mitigate the risk of manipulation. This was something, they said, that could substantially affect results in many constituencies.

The National Assembly’s Standing Committee for Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resources – chaired by Mir Aamer Ali Khan Magsi were briefed by ECP Additional Secretary Fida Muhammad, Punjab Provincial Election Commissioner Masood Malik and ECP Director IT General Khizer Aziz.

The panel was told that extending voting rights to overseas Pakistanis required careful assessment of the political and operational consequences as well as the risks involved. By 2007, around 115 countries had established legal provisions allowing out-of-country voting (OCV) for their citizens who lived abroad. There is, however, great variation in the scope and methodology used by various countries to implement OCV, they said.

Talking about the option of setting up polling stations in embassies and consulates in over a dozen countries that are home to a large number of Pakistanis, it was pointed out that some countries might not allow such huge gatherings of people for voting purposes because they do not permit political activities.

Mr Aziz said that online voting was not feasible either, as it would compromise secrecy and expose the electoral rolls to the risk of computer hacking. He said that this would also leave voters open to influence from family members, colleagues and friends.

During the briefing, the ECP team said that around 25 countries, including Australia, Canada, Bangladesh, Germany and Norway allowed their diaspora to vote by mail. Voters filled in special ballot papers, which were then transported via post.

The ECP team said postal balloting entailed relatively fewer financial and logistical costs as compared to other systems. The committee was told that Pakistanis possessing a National Identity Card for Overseas Pakistanis (Nicop) and a Pakistani passport would be entitled to be registered as overseas voters.

The committee was also told that foreign missions would send voter registration forms to the ECP, which will sort them out district-wise and send them to the respective district election commissioner for verification and preparation of draft electoral rolls. The proposed voting procedure was also shared with the committee.

Members of the committee, however, observed that it would be laborious and tedious work. They also noted that most overseas Pakistanis would find it difficult to spare time to go through the hassle of registering themselves as voters.

The ECP officials said that in the absence of proper planning and without the involvement of the relevant stakeholders, such as political parties, the Overseas Pakistanis Foundation and the National Database and Registration Authority, the process may be jeopardised. They also said that legal amendments would also be required before postal balloting could be instituted, which they suggested be staggered over two phases.

However, Soufia A. Siddiqi, a Pakistani doctoral candidate at the Unversity of Oxford – who also initiated a petition on to convince the ECP to allow overseas Pakistanis to vote ahead of the last general elections – disputed some of facts laid before the committee.

Talking to Dawn, Ms Siddiqi said that in the run up to the 2013 elections, and a lot of countries, including certain Middle Eastern countries, had agreed to let Pakistan go ahead with voting for overseas Pakistanis.

She said that the primary concern was with around 90 countries including the US, UK, mainland Europe and Middle East, where most of the overseas Pakistani population was concentrated, adding that most of these countries had no objections to letting expatriates vote.

She was of the view that lawmakers’ concerns were political and not technical, as Nadra and ECP had both declared that it was possible to allow overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes.

Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2015

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