LAHORE: In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court on Friday allowed approximately eight million overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming by-elections and directed the ECP to carry out a pilot project to accomplish the task.
A three-member bench – headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar and comprising Justice Umar Ata Bandial and Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan – resumed hearing a petition filed by PTI Chairman Imran Khan (now prime minister-elect), seeking arrangements for eligible overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes.
During the proceedings at the Supreme Court’s Lahore Registry, the bench directed the ECP and Nadra to ensure fool-proof arrangements for the I-Voting system.
Congratulating the overseas Pakistanis, the chief justice said their right to vote had been recognised for the very first time in the country’s 71 year history. Pakistanis living abroad can use the I-voting system to cast their votes. The system allows Pakistani voters worldwide to cast their votes via the internet.
At the outset of the hearing, ECP Secretary Babar Yaqoob Fateh told the bench that rules had been framed in light of its powers under Section 239 of Election Act 2017. He said the I-voting mechanism had been evolved with the contribution of Nadra to facilitate overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote. Nadra Chairman Usman Mobeen was also present in the court.
“Electoral results of I-Vote should be kept separate, presented before the Parliament and included in overall results,” remarked Justice Nisar. He ordered that voting of overseas Pakistanis in by-polls would be conducted to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy and security of voting and present the results before the parliament as required under Section 94 of the Election Act 2017.
Section 94 reads: “Voting by Overseas Pakistanis.—(1) The Commission may conduct pilot projects for voting by Overseas Pakistanis in bye-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the Government, which shall, within fifteen days from the commencement of a session of a House after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both Houses of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament).”
The chief justice noted that the ball was in the ECP’s court to guarantee implementation of the court orders. The top judge also said the pilot project should be completed as per the ECP rules and operational plan.
If the pilot project of overseas Pakistanis voting in the by-elections ends successfully, it will lead to the court granting expats the right to vote in the general elections. The by-polls will be arranged to fill seats vacated by lawmakers who contested and won more than one seat in the July 25 elections, or for other reasons.
Justice Nisar directed the ECP to cooperate with the Nadra and ensure proper arrangements in order to make the pilot project a success. Apparently dispelling the impression that the I-Voting project would be an informal exercise, the chief justice emphasised: "[That this is being done on] an experimental basis does not mean that its results should be ignored."
The court ordered that results obtained from I-Voting by overseas Pakistanis will be included in the final results of the by-polls. However, the I-voting results will also be stored separately and taken out from the final count in case a conflict arises, it said.
The Supreme Court had in June put off the case relating to granting the right to vote to 7.9 million overseas Pakistanis until after the July 25 general elections when it was informed that the idea could not be materialised due to paucity of time and required multiple-tests of the specially-designed software.
A task force comprising IT experts constituted by the ECP to examine the possibility of introducing the facility had warned earlier this week that the system is likely to be attacked by foreign governments and intelligence agencies.
The petitioners had sought implementation of 2014 judgement by the Supreme Court wherein the ECP was directed to make arrangements to ensure that expatriates could participate in the general elections and exercise the fundamental rights enshrined under Article 17(2) of the Constitution.
As the chief justice dictated the order, an overseas Pakistani present in the court came forwarded and expressed his gratitude to the chief justice on behalf of overseas Pakistanis.
He also invited Chief Justice Nisar to visit the UK and the US where overseas Pakistanis were willing to give money for the fund set up by the Supreme Court for the construction of dams. He hoped that expat Pakistanis would likely contribute around $1 million to the national cause.
Justice Nisar said he had been receiving invitations to visit overseas Pakistanis in different countries who wanted to donate up to $1 billion for the dams. However, the chief justice said he would not be able to visit more than a couple of countries – the US and the UK. He hinted at visiting overseas Pakistanis along with the State Bank governor and the Wapda chairman, not to collect fund but to sensitise them about the importance of the water issue.