A few days back, the Imran Khan government bulldozed 33 bills in a joint sitting of the parliament with the opposition rejecting the legislation, demanding discussion and debate as is required in any functioning democracy. Among the bills passed, one of the most crucial was the bill giving Overseas Pakistanis the right to vote in general elections. This may well change the politics of Pakistan in the coming years.
By definition, Overseas Pakistanis include citizens who have migrated to another country as well as people born abroad of Pakistani descent. According to the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, approximately 9 million Pakistanis live abroad, with the vast majority, nearly 4 million, residing in the Middle East. Of this number, the majority of Overseas Pakistanis reside in Saudi Arabia where they number 1.9 million, followed by the UK (1.5 million), the UAE (1.2 million) and the US (0.9 million). Time and again, Overseas Pakistanis have provided a financial cushion for Pakistan’s struggling economy — with inward remittances growing from $5.6 billion in 2019 to an expected $8 billion in 2021. Many governments have used them to shore up foreign exchange reserves — using one gimmick or another — leaving these migrants with the feeling of being cheated time and again.
There is a belief amongst political analysts that Prime Minister Imran Khan enjoys considerable support in the Overseas Pakistanis community, similar to what General Musharraf once did. These Pakistanis are impressed with what they see as the clean credentials of Imran Khan, in comparison to the somewhat murky ones presented by others. But like we saw in the case of General Musharraf, this support is somewhat fickle and can disappear as quickly as it has been garnered. Riding this tide, the PTI has gone ahead with its election commitment to give Overseas Pakistanis the right to vote.
Not surprisingly, the decision has not gone down well in many quarters, suggesting that not everyone is in favour of this. While the PM claims that the move has been taken to strengthen democracy, many suggest it has been done because many PTI supporters actually live abroad. In a population of more than 225 million, 9 million is a small percentage. According to one report by a local TV channel, Overseas Pakistanis are about 4 per cent of the total population. But the number becomes more significant when you consider the fact that a large number of Overseas Pakistanis hail from very specific of districts of the country. For example, at least 700,000 of the overseas voters come from 14 National Assembly constituencies in Lahore. On average each constituency has about 50,000 overseas voters. At least 470,000 overseas voters come from five NA constituencies in Sialkot and 450,000 from seven constituencies in Rawalpindi. In Karachi, four NA constituencies from District Central have 346,960 overseas voters, and four constituencies in District East have 221,312 overseas voters. In Swat, at least 225,764 Overseas Pakistanis will now be voting in three constituencies. More significantly, in Islamabad which has only two NA constituencies, over 200,000 voters are living outside the country. This is possibly why PTI has pushed for voting rights — an idea to which other parties have not been warm to.
Now that the legislation has been passed, regardless of the circumstances in which it was done, the question on whether Overseas Pakistanis should be given a right to vote is now an academic one. Many have argued that only those who live in Pakistan or pay taxes in Pakistan should be allowed to vote here — the idea coming from the concept of “no taxation without representation” and vice versa. Others have put across the argument that Overseas Pakistanis should be focusing on local politics of their countries of residence — making a difference in their adopted homelands instead of meddling with affairs of a country they have left and whose nationality (in most instances) they have denounced. This holds true, however, only for those who have migrated to the West. In the case of the Middle East, no such involvement in local politics is tolerated. In all this, what is sad is the manner in which this momentous legislation has been passed — with the result that it can be reversed in times to come on grounds that it wasn’t properly debated — depriving the country of a new strand of politics.