Some 13 years ago, when I was heading the media department of a British organisation, I got the chance to observe how most British expats in Pakistan voted in the 2010 UK parliamentary elections. Nine out of the 12 expats who agreed to reveal the party that they voted for, cast their votes for the Conservative Party. Two voted for the Liberal Democrats and just one claimed to have voted for the Labour Party.
Two of them told me that since the early 1980s, a majority of British expats around the world have preferred to vote for the Conservative Party. British expats have the right to vote in their country’s parliamentary elections, but this right lapses if an expat has remained resident outside the UK for more than 15 years.
In 2018, during a round-table session in Washington DC that I attended on the topic of the electoral behaviour of overseas Americans, most speakers were of the view that a majority of overseas Americans tended to vote for the Republican Party. No significant data was shared to corroborate this, but some former US ambassadors attending the session claimed that most expat Americans working in Asian and South American countries vote for the Republican Party and that this has been the trend since 1980.
The session concluded that expats — at least American and British — were likely to vote for conservative parties. However, things might changing. According to a 29 May 2021 report in US Today, and a 7 November 2022 report in the Business Times, a majority of overseas Americans voted for the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden during the 2020 presidential election. These votes went a long way in helping Biden win two swing states, Arizona and Georgia, that were won by Donald Trump in 2016.
In the UK as well, more than a decade of chaotic rule by the Conservative Party is likely to see overseas British voters break the pattern by voting against the Conservatives.
Populists haven’t been very popular with overseas Americans and the expat British.
However, over the last few years, there have been many reports published which demonstrated that overseas Pakistanis and Indians overwhelmingly support populist parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Overseas Indians were given the right to vote in Indian elections only in 2010, but those holding dual nationalities still can’t.
Overseas Pakistanis were temporarily given this right in October 2018 (as an experimental exercise) during a by-election. Just 7,461 registered online to vote out of which 6,233 cast their ballots. The experiment was deemed a failure and a costly affair.
The phenomenon of most overseas Indians and Pakistanis exhibiting support for the BJP and the PTI has been repeatedly observed by many, but never fully studied. The answers may lie in a hefty study published in the May 2019 issue of the Oxford Academic Journal.
The study was conducted by two American political scientists, A.C. Goldberg and Simon Lanz. It concentrated largely on migrants from two European countries. But Goldberg and Lanz argue that the results of the study can be relevant for other countries as well. One of their findings was that the voting/support preferences of migrants are often contrary to those at home.
This is because the social, political and economic contexts that the migrants are operating in are different than what they are in the home country. An issue in the country of origin will have a more abstract impact on migrants residing in a different environment, hundreds or thousands of miles away. The impact of the same issue on those living in the home country is more tangible and immediate.
More than a decade of chaotic rule by the Conservative Party is likely to see overseas British voters break the pattern by voting against the Conservatives. Populists haven’t been very popular with overseas Americans and the expat British
This might be the reason behind the somewhat different understanding of issues among the two sets. Those living in the home country often believe that their compatriots living aboard have only a superficial knowledge of what is really transpiring in the motherland.
An earlier 2006 study by the Dutch economist Dr Jan Fidrmuc and econometrist Orla Doyle came to the same conclusion after studying the voting behaviour of Czech and Polish expats in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The results of this study indicate that the political preferences of migrants in their home countries are influenced change by the manner in which they adapt to the norms and attitudes prevailing in the host country.
Fidrmuc and Doyle found that most Czech and Polish expats living in European countries tended to vote for right-wing parties at home but, interestingly, those living in African countries preferred left-leaning parties. This is because economic and political environments in Europe and Africa differ. Most Czech and Polish expats in European countries are suspicious of social-democratic parties in their own countries because Poland and the erstwhile Czechoslovakia were under communist dictatorships between 1945 and 1989.
Apart from seeing left-leaning parties in their home countries as being ‘socialist,’ there is also a strong sense of Czech and Polish nationalism in the expats which re-emerged after the fall of communist rule and was largely right-wing in nature. But according to the study, expats from the same two countries living in less developed countries tended to vote for left-leaning parties at home due to their experience in poorer countries with problematic economic conditions and lack of social welfare programs.
On the other hand, migrants from non-Western developing countries in Europe, after experiencing the advantages of developed economies, are likely to understand ‘progress’ in their home country through the lens provided to them by their lived experience in developed countries. Thus they tend to support home parties promising progress along these lines. These lines can be defined as a mixture of neoliberal economics and welfarism.
Indian historian Meera Nanda writes in The God Market that the changing worldview of the Indian middle classes (and diaspora) is being shaped by the “state-temple-corporate complex.” Rich Indians are heavily investing in this by fusing Hindu nationalism with modern economics
But what about expats from developed countries opting to vote for conservative parties? Studies suggest that British and American expats voting for the Conservative Party and Republican Party largely vote to retain their countries’ rarely-changing external policies rather than focus on their home countries’ more fluid internal matters.
These expats are more impacted by the foreign policies of their home countries than by their countries’ more localised issues. However, as mentioned, most overseas Americans opted to vote for Democrats in 2020. This is likely due to the ruptures created in American foreign policy by the Trump administration.
An October 2020 feature in Vice quoted an American living in France as saying that he hardly ever votes in US Presidential election but was planning to do so in the November 2020 election because “Trump was a complete mess for the world.”
Findings of the mentioned studies also suggest that non-Western migrants are likely to vote for the opposition in their home countries. But they can be quick to withdraw their support once the opposition comes to power and is slow to deliver. But what are these migrants looking for?
A May 2018 study of the voting behaviour of Mexican migrants in the US by the Wilson Center concluded that till 2000, Mexican migrants often supported opposition parties in Mexico. They saw the long rule of the centrist PRI as a period in which millions of Mexicans had to migrate due to PRI’s flawed economic policies and authoritarian disposition.
The Mexican migrants were granted the right to vote in 2000 and as expected, they voted for the anti-PRI party, the centre-right PAN. PAN retained the support of the migrants during the 2006 presidential election as well when its candidate narrowly defeated the candidate of the centre-left PRD. PRD was of the view that migrant votes had played a role in tilting the scale in PAN’s favour. PRD thus began to invest more in attracting the Mexican migrant votes, especially in the US. This paid off when the party bagged the bulk of the migrant vote in the 2018 Mexican presidential election.
Therefore, the new president belonging to PRD promised to further ease the conditions for migrant Mexicans to vote in Mexican elections, provide lawyers to Mexicans in the US facing deportation, challenge Trump’s idea of building a wall across the long US-Mexico border, and further smoothen the process of remitting money from the US to Mexico.
The PTI and BJP enjoyed overwhelming support from overseas Pakistanis and Indians before both were voted into power. However, once in power, support for them began to somewhat recede at home (especially in case of PTI) creating restlessness within the pro-PTI and pro-BJP Pakistani and Indian diasporas.
Indian PM Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Imran Khan applied separate sets of rhetoric for their supporters within and outside the country. Outside their countries, to retain the diaspora’s attention and support, they continued to apply rhetoric that they had formulated when they were in the opposition. But after both came to power, this rhetoric was failing to stand up to a plethora of economic and political problems at home.
Indian historian Meera Nanda writes in The God Market that the changing worldview of the Indian middle classes (and diaspora) is being shaped by the “state-temple-corporate complex.” Rich Indians are heavily investing in this by fusing Hindu nationalism with modern economics. This combination excites the Indian diaspora and they identify it with Modi. But what happens when the corporate is finally swallowed by Hindu zealotry and leaves behind only Hindu nationalism?
Well, this is exactly what has happened in Modi’s India. But among the pro-BJP Indian diaspora, Modi’s appeal is still linked to his rise in 2014.
A feature from 7 May 2019 in Foreign Policy quotes Sangay Mishra, a professor of political science, as saying, “the traditional voter base of the BJP merges well with the current demographic makeup of the Indian diaspora.” He then adds, “the BJP has always taken a strident nationalist position, and within that you see a particular variant of Hindu nationalism, which has a peculiar kind of appeal for this section of the diaspora.”
So basically, the growing militant tendencies of Hindu nationalist groups may have begun to be noted by the Western press, but most pro-BJP overseas Indians (in Europe and the US) perceive this militancy as an urgent nationalistic deed enacted to establish the supremacy of Hinduism in a Hindu-majority country — even though they themselves reside in secular Western countries.
On the other hand, what excited the Pakistani diaspora about former PM Khan was the manner in which he tapped into the Pakistani diaspora’s engagement with contemporary identity politics, especially in the West. He did this by clubbing together displays of religiosity, anti-corruption tirades, populist post-colonialist rhetoric and lofty allusions to Scandinavian social democracy, but one which was curiously explained by him as an Islamic concept.
Whereas identity politics can lead to some awkward ethnic and sectarian tensions in Pakistan, it works well among the Pakistani diaspora in the West. Therefore, the gap between the understanding of present-day Pakistani politics between overseas Pakistanis and the locals has continued to grow. Some locals have lamented that their overseas compatriots are still stuck in 2014, or in PTI’s more glamorous dharna years.
Like Modi, and the Islamist dictator Zia-ul-Haq before him, Khan synchronises amoral economic progress and material prosperity with some rather reactionary strands of nationalism and religiosity. To Modi and Khan, these are not exclusive to each other but are part of an integrated ideological whole which would produce a prosperous, patriotic and pious society able to compete with the West on its own terms.
Of course, it is nothing of the sort. It is an illusion that Indian and Pakistani urban middle-classes and diasporas like to carry as a way to express it as an identity and an ideological/political purpose. Both Modi and Khan become symbols of rebellion against the status quo as well, despite the fact that Modi is now very much part of the status quo and Khan is from Punjab’s bourgeois elite. Both men are also allied to some of the richest men in their respective countries.