SPO Pakistan and SPO UK jointly organized a forum to discuss modalities for exercising the right to vote in Pakistani elections by overseas Pakistanis. The event was organized at Macmillan Room, Port Cullis House, House of Commons, London on 29th January 2015. Members of British Parliament, representatives of leading Pakistani political parties, a representative of Pakistan High Commission in London, civil society members and prominent British citizens with Pakistani origin participated in the discussion. Details of the proceedings are covered in the following press release.
At a well-attended gathering held in the Macmillan Committee Room in Port Cullis House, House of Commons, London on Thursday 29th January 2015, speakers and participants took part in an intensive discussion on the pros and cons of voting rights for overseas Pakistanis in Pakistan as well as the preferred system to cast ballots. A diversity of opinions emerged on both the concept of voting rights and on specific mechanisms to ensure the integrity of polling.
The consultative meeting was convened at the initiative of the civil society forum known as SPO-UK, a London-based affiliate of the leading Pakistani grass-roots development and advocacy body called SPO (Strengthening Participatory Organization). SPO works in about 70 districts in all 4 Provinces of Pakistan to build capacity and promote citizens’ rights since 1994. SPO-UK is committed to working with the Pakistani diaspora to enhance community participation, gender justice and values of peace and democracy.
Several speakers called for the earliest possible launch of actions by the Election Commission of Pakistan in Islamabad and by the Government of Pakistan through all its relevant High Commissions and Embassies in overseas countries to implement the judgment given by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2013 reiterating, in principle, the right of vote for overseas Pakistanis in elections held in Pakistan. As the next elections are set to be held in 2018, less than 3 years remain for consultations in all the several countries where overseas Pakistanis reside and for similar meetings in other cities in the UK. Preparations to actually implement modes and options for voting will alone require at least one year before 2018. There is no time to be lost to give concrete form to the SC decision.
At the same time, other speakers strongly disagreed with the fundamental issue on grounds including factors that overseas Pakistanis had an obligation to first become fully active participants in the democratic institutions of the countries of which they have become permanent residents. Voting in Pakistanis elections would result in the increase of schisms and divisions among overseas Pakistanis.
Prominent British personalities who spoke included Lord Qurban Ahmed of Luton, Councilor Natasha Shaikh of Ealing, representatives in the UK of PML(N), PPP and PTI, technocrats, entrepreneurs, social activists and Dr. Asrar, Head of Community Welfare in the Pakistan High Commission of London.
A total of 20 speakers expressed their views briefly, but eloquently in a lively, interactive discussion moderated by Senator (r) Javed Jabbar who, with two colleagues, specially visited London briefly for this meeting.
After Ms. Natasha Shaikh welcomed attendees, Dr. Tufail Mohammad Khan, Chairman of SPO, thanked the distinguished attendees who comprised a cross-section of overseas Pakistanis for their presence. He referred to the recent meeting held in Islamabad on 20th January 2015 when he and the Chief Executive of SPO called on the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan, Hon’ble Mr Justice (r) Sardar Muhammad Raza Khan and senior officials to discuss this subject. The CEC welcomed the initiative being taken by SPO-UK and SPO-PK and looked forward to receiving feedback from the consultation held in London.
Mr. Naseer Memon, Chief Executive of SPO Pakistan briefed participants on the principal points contained in the judgment rendered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. He also highlighted the aims of SPO-UK and appreciated the valuable contributions being made by British citizens of Pakistani origin in different fields and their continued support to the development needs of Pakistan. Professor Zaffar Bugtti, Director and acting Chief Executive of SPO-UK identified the legal perspective by referring to the principal aspects of the Judgment rendered by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and pointed out that the Supreme Court had simply reiterated a right that already exists within the Constitution of Pakistan. He further discussed the instruction given to the independent Election Commission of Pakistan to achieve the objectives to enable overseas Pakistanis to cast their vote.
Lord Qurban Ahmed of Luton said that while he respected the right of the SC of Pakistan to render its opinion, his own experience of over 2 decades in British political life clearly reflected the fact that British Pakistanis are overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own local, national affairs rather than being truly knowledgeable about internal Pakistani political dynamics. He apprehended that British Kashmiris with bonds related to Azad Jammu and Kashmir would be completely excluded from the proposed voting and that, apart from enormous logistical problems, such voting would deepen and divide Pakistanis and Kashmiris in the UK. His views were forcefully endorsed by Mr. Tariq Dar, Mr. Mushtaq Lashari, Mr. Shaikh Rehman, Ms. Bashan Rafiq and some others.
UK representatives of Pakistani political parties and some other attendees strongly supported the right to vote.
Cllr Natasha Shaikh emphasized the importance of focusing remarks on the options available to implement the Constitutional right and the judgment of the SC. She cautioned against holding a discussion on issues that diverted attention away from the basic aim of the consultative process.
Dr. Asrar of the Pakistan High Commission said that during consultations with NADRA, it had been estimated that there are 400,000 people in the UK who would be eligible to vote. While recalling that the right has always existed in the Constitution, he said that the High Commission in London and consulates elsewhere had vastly improved their capacity to respond promptly to the needs of overseas Pakistanis.
Senator (r) Javed Jabbar, a co-founder of SPO said that while the Supreme Court judgment was a positive and appreciable opinion, SPO itself, both in the UK and in Pakistan do not hold any pre-determined or fixed positions on the options for the process by which the Supreme Court decision can be given practical shape. While the experience of other countries serves as a useful source for possible best practices, Pakistan itself as well as overseas Pakistanis were subject to their own exclusive realities and factors. It was most vital to ensure integrity and credibility of voting by overseas Pakistanis, particularly in view of the on-going controversy over the fairness of the polls held in 2013.
Options identified by participants at the meeting included:
1. Voting at polling stations at Pakistan High Commission and Consulates.
2. Electronic voting using the Internet and individually coded methods.
3. Postal ballots.
The compilation with the help of NADRA of authentic voters’ lists of overseas Pakistanis eligible to cast votes was acknowledged as a basic challenge.
Reference was made to the recent experience of the referendum held in Scotland with regard to continuation within, or separation from, the UK and it was noted that only those persons of Scottish origin were allowed to vote who were physically present as long-term residents of Scotland and not those Scottish persons residing in other parts of the UK or overseas.
Another factor mentioned was that just as in Pakistan itself where women in some urban areas and in many rural areas are discouraged or prevented from voting, in the UK as well, the level of participation by British Pakistani women in several communities across the UK was lower than a minimally desirable level.
Speakers stressed the need for the High Commission and Consulates to remain strictly impartial and neutral in case their premises were used as polling stations in view of the traditional tendency in Pakistan for either the previous ruling party or other interest groups influencing conditions during polling. Aspects concerning secrecy of ballot, reliable counting of votes at the polling stations, their certification, etc. were also discussed.
Summarising the lively inter-action, Senator (r) Javed Jabbar thanked all the persons who helped organize the event and attendees for their active engagement in this subject and for making important and thought-provoking contributions. He said that while a full report would be shortly provided to the CEC in Pakistan, SPO-UK intended to evolve it’s public service work in close co-ordination with British Pakistanis and with other citizens of Britain to foster harmony and improved co-operation for social justice. He urged other civil society forums in the UK to also help shape a consensus on the subject of the meeting.
Others who spoke were: Sahibzada Jahingir, Agha Tanveer, Adnan Jamil, Iqbal Sindhu, Atif Chaudhry, Javad Raza, Hina Malik, Shaikh Rehman, Maqsood Mir, Sakeena Laljee, Rafiuddin Khan