Facilitating overseas voters

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Shahnawaz Sarmad

Despite unexpected and stunning electoral results of the US presidential elections, developing nations like Pakistan have many lessons to learn regarding electoral proceedings, including the use of advanced technology that provided citizens the right to choose their candidate even when they are in space, about 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Shane Kimbrough is the latest US astronauts out of the many who have been able to vote from space since 1997.
It’s agonising that in the US people are casting votes from space for 20 years, while on the other hand, campaigns to develop a mechanism for overseas Pakistanis to use their right to vote are not being taken seriously in Pakistan. Similarly, there is no easy way for government employees to cast their votes. This is also a reason that in our whole electoral history, turnout has never crossed even 60 per cent, which has affected the process of choosing right people as our leaders. Consequently, we were left far behind in a fast-paced world.
According to 16th US President Abraham Lincoln, democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” which proves that participation of “people” is of utmost importance in electing a democratic government. Unfortunately, most of Pakistanis usually do not vote because they feel that one vote does not count and it makes no difference if they vote or not. However, the truth is different, because each vote counts in many ways. Your choice to vote or not will make an impact on the lives of millions of your fellow countrymen. Lawmakers, elected through public ballot, legislate policies and laws that affect public for years to come. If everyone used an excuse and did not vote, we would just blame each other for the government we would have.
Although if we try to convince the public to make a difference through their vote, it is equally important for people in power to take practical steps to make the electoral process transparent, fair and peaceful as it is the only way to build and restore public trust in balloting. But the irony is that our politicians do not seem to have any serious intent to make this happen. Especially no significant development has been made to facilitate voters so far. Hence, some reforms need to be crucially implemented in coming elections.
Terrorism has hit Pakistan so devastatingly that people are afraid of going to crowded places. Maintaining a peaceful setting is of vital importance to building public trust and bringing voters to polling stations. For this matter of grave concern, the government needs to revise its (hidden) policy of keeping provincial police departments weak to use them in tempering electoral results and as a power-tool whenever needed. Calling army every time to conduct free, fair and peaceful elections is not the real solution; strong police departments can better do the job. Practically, police is closer to the public than other law enforcement agencies because they are always in constant interaction with them. We also have seen betterment in this regard, like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police is said to be free from political pressure. Similarly, Punjab Police has proved itself a lot more capable in the context of excellent security arrangements for recent events like visits of foreign delegations, security of foreign experts working on CPEC, Ashura ,and international cricket matches. They also have maintained writ of the state against protestors without using a bullet and have fought terrorism as a front line force. They deserve to be strengthened to work more efficiently. Now is the time to take realistic steps towards making institutions powerful.
Turnout in 2013 general elections was 55 percent, which is considered to be one of the highest turnouts in the history of Pakistan. But with a little more effort, this turnout could be increased by manifolds. Election Commission of Pakistan should establish or allocate more polling stations near the homes of voters for general elections 2018. Polling stations on walking distance will not only increase women participation but can also make the process transparent, as no candidate will be able to influence the voters by providing them transportation. Proper facilitation to special persons, facilities of drinking water, waiting for place, and easy ways of approaching polling booth for general public would also help in achieving the goal of maximum turnout.
About 6.7 million of Pakistanis are living abroad and have no right to vote according to the constitution of Pakistan. In the absence of any law on the subject, neither the ECP nor the SC is in a position to take any steps. In a recent statement, the ECP said it was sincerely taking into consideration the matter of the basic right to vote of expatriates holding Pakistani citizenship. Anyhow, the successive governments have tried to introduce amendments to the law in order to let Pakistanis around the world cast their votes. The issue has been pending with the Supreme Court since 2010. An ordinance to this effect was promulgated two days before the May 2013 general elections, but it served no purpose because the matter required a lot of work, including the mode of voting. The ordinance lapsed after four months. Different options to facilitate voting by Pakistanis living abroad through postal ballot, the internet, and in-person voting should be considered.
The idea of postal ballots appears to be a top priority in recent discussions, but modalities for this would have to be worked out for making the process transparent and avoiding any misuse and manipulation. The need of the hour is to expedite the process through the setting up of a standing committee on electoral reforms, so that by 2018 general elections, we have a solution
to this issue.
In the General Elections of 2013, about a million public servants performed their duties far from their home station, where their vote was registered.
To facilitate them in exercising their right to vote, ECP invites applications for the postal ballot from government employees. But unfortunately, only a few of them exercise their right to vote because others don’t give this social responsibility any importance and the awareness level in employees about this privilege is very low. The ECP should make sure that all personnel deployed on election duties get appropriate information about using their right to vote.
Pakistan has the lowest voter turnout in South Asia. Lack of voter trust and education has been identified as two of the primary reasons behind this indifference and lack of participation.
In order to make the election system successful in Pakistan, voters must be aware of the importance and value of their votes. It is awareness that will enable voters to choose the correct candidate and to make him accountable. Voters’ education should commence from enlistment of their names in voters lists and extend up to the casting of votes in the polling booth. ECP needs to launch a massive campaign before the General Elections in 2018 to attract voters to come to the polling stations on election day and cast their votes. The special strategy should be designed to engage youth voters, as they make a major portion of the total population and vote bank.
Lack of power and independence of the ECP has always been in question by political parties in Pakistan whenever electoral reforms are discussed. It is the key responsibility of the ECP of organising free and fair elections and, hence, it should be autonomous, powerful and out of the influence of any person, political party, government or any other institute so that our voice could be heard more loudly and more clearly through polling.