GIVING VOTING RIGHTS TO OVERSEAS PAKISTANIS: THE NEGATIVE ASPECT

  • 10 Feb - 16 Feb, 2018
  • Shahed Sadullah
  • London Eye

A few days ago, the Pakistani media reported that the Honourable Chief Justice of Pakistan had expressed appreciation and support for the efforts made by NADRA and the Election Commission of Pakistan towards the development of a system that would allow overseas Pakistanis to vote in Pakistani general elections. It is not clear whether this will involve coming to the Pakistan Embassy in London or the nearest consulate to exercise this right, but if that is the case, it could make it a very expensive business given travel costs in the UK.

There are other countries that allow their citizens living abroad the right to vote. Britain does so but only for a limited period of 15 years after the person has left the UK to reside abroad. Canada does so for a much shorter period of five years after which a Canadian expat is no longer allowed to vote. Both these arrangements clearly imply that in order to be allowed to vote, citizenship is not enough. A British citizen living abroad for more than 15 years and a Canadian living abroad for more than five years would not lose his or her citizenship of Britain or Canada, but would not have the right to vote. This suspension of the right to vote is, again, not a permanent ban for life. If a British citizen returns to the UK after a stay of more than 15 years abroad, he or she would be entitled to get back on the electoral register and therefore be able to vote. What this implies is the fact that more important than citizenship is a direct connection with the country of origin which Britain believes cannot be maintained after an absence of 15 years and Canada, rather more strictly, believes is lost after just five years. Pakistan expats in the UK, for the most part, have been living for much longer than even 15 years. There are some Pakistani families into their fifth and even sixth generation in the UK, with many never having ever seen Pakistan.

In addition to this, Pakistani citizenship laws are not very definite. When one applies for the citizenship of another country, one continues with one’s Pakistani citizenship more or less ad infinitum. There is no prescribed period after which one loses one’s Pakistani citizenship without reclaiming it. The concept of automatic lapse of citizenship does not exist in the case of Pakistan and citizenship automatically devolves from a father to his children and, by implication, to their children. So theoretically, my great-grandchildren, 20 generations later, would still be eligible for Pakistani citizenship and consequently, if press reports are to be believed, to vote in Pakistani elections. That is something the authorities in Pakistan may not have considered.

But what is of much greater importance is the issue of unity of expat Pakistanis living abroad. There is nothing more divisive than Pakistani politics and it may already be said that perhaps no single issue divides Pakistanis living in the UK more than a very unhealthy importation of Pakistani politics. Thus we have UK branches of most of the Pakistani political parties strutting around and showing their importance when, in fact and deed, they should have none because nothing of what they do impacts in any way on our lives here in the UK. Members of these UK branches bask in the reflected glow of their leaders, showing their importance by having their pictures taken with them when the leaders visit the UK, for which favour they usually have to pay their shopping bills. These pictures are then carried in the Pakistani papers and sometimes even by Pakistani TV stations. These differences would multiply manifold when there is something on the line – votes. This preoccupation with Pakistani politics, already much more of a passion than it should be with many Pakistani expats – is, of course, bound to diminish as time goes on and a third or fourth generation of Pakistani expats comes up which is bound to have much less interest in Pakistani politics when the prospect of selling and buying of votes would become a very real one. But worst of all, the chance of an increasing division along Pakistani political lines and, at least in the short term, the prospect of increasing interest in Pakistani politics, would shift the focus of the community from British politics where it should be; for here is where the future of this community lies. If our representation in British politics is not increased manifold, our prospects here will not improve and thus British politics is of far greater importance to us than Pakistani politics. The grant of voting rights to Pakistani expats in Britain will not serve that end. There is a huge argument about integration of Pakistani communities which have settled abroad in western countries and that argument will not be furthered by this arrangement and, in so far, will not be helpful for them.

Of course, it is different in some countries, say of the Middle East, where Pakistani expats are not granted citizenship, where there is little or no local politics allowed and none in which expats are allowed to participate. These expats, since they are never granted citizenship, are obviously looking to return to Pakistan one day and therefore a case may be made out for them to vote in elections in Pakistan. But for the vast majority of Pakistanis settled in the UK, USA or Western Europe, return to Pakistan is no longer an option, mainly for cultural reasons. Their children have been brought up in such a vastly different atmosphere, where the Urdu language is barely known to them, that they could not function if they were to return to Pakistan. It is difficult to see why people, who have no intention to ever return to Pakistan on a permanent basis, should be allowed to vote in Pakistani elections – and that must be the argument why they are not allowed to hold public office in Pakistan either. The possession of mere citizenship is not enough; there has to be a clear and demonstrable personal interest in Pakistan and this demonstration of personal interest has to go beyond watching Pakistani TV stations and supporting the Pakistan cricket team.

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COMMENTS

    Dr. Syed commented 7 months ago

    Thanks for the elaborate explanation of problem. Overseas Pakistanis residing in Saudi Arabia and Middle East countries are not only contributing to foreign exchange reserves but are bound to come back home due to non-availability of permanent residency there. Therefore they remain more concerned

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