The National Assembly witnessed a noisy session on Wednesday as the government presented the 26th constitutional amendment bill in the lower house that seeks open balloting in the Senate elections.
Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem presented the bill amid loud sloganeering and protest by the opposition benches.
"We are amending the Constitution, not stealing the election," the minister said while responding to the opposition's criticism.
Speaker Asad Qaiser invited Naseem to speak about the salient features of the bill, but he could hardly do so due to the ruckus before the speaker announced a recess.
While speaking about the bill later, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Dr Babar Awan said the PTI and its coalition parties were the only parties that had made practical efforts to end the involvement of money in the Senate elections by bringing a constitutional amendment.
He said despite the Charter of Democracy signed by their leaders, the PPP and PML-N were "running away" from the proposal to conduct the Senate polls through open ballot.
"People want that elections be sold again, the Senate be sold again, consciences be sold again and a vote market be set up. If this is not the case, there is only one way, and that is to have this amendment to the Constitution," he added, saying after the amendment, lawmakers will not be able to cast vote against the party to which they belong.
Awan said another amendment the government sought to bring in Article 63(1)(c) would allow Pakistanis holding dual nationalities to contest elections.
He said the proposed bill stated that dual nationals could not be left "remedy-less" by asking them to first renounce their second nationality before contesting the elections in Pakistan. Therefore, they will be required to renounce their citizenship of the foreign country before taking the oath of office, if elected.
Last Thursday, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law and Justice had passed the bill for open balloting in the Senate polls.
The committee in its less than half an hour meeting considered the bill titled “The Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Bill, 2020” and recommended with majority that the bill may be passed by the National Assembly.
The opposition members of the committee opposed the sudden voting and protested what they termed "bulldozing" of the bill. However, committee chair Riaz Fatyana of the PTI sought the consent of the participants on the bill, paving the way for its passage.
PML-N opposes bill
Addressing the house, PML-N's Ahsan Iqbal said his party "strongly opposes" the amendment bill, adding that "We will not allow the government to bulldoze the Constitution."
He claimed that the government had gotten the amendment bill passed through the relevant standing committee "in 20 minutes".
Iqbal asked Prime Minister Imran Khan why he had not pursued "transparency" in the elections for the Senate chairman and only thought about it now.
"At that time horsetrading was being done from Prime Minister House [according to Imran] but now that he is afraid his own members will not vote [for the PTI], he has suddenly remembered transparency," the PML-N leader added.
He said the government was misleading overseas Pakistanis because it "wants to bring dual nationals" in its ranks to the Senate.
"Legislation or amendments to Constitution cannot be done for the friends of Imran Khan," Iqbal added.
In his remarks, PPP's Raja Pervez Ashraf said the government planned to amend the Constitution with "ill-intent" and "shrewdness".
He claimed that the government did not have the numbers to effect the amendment and "on top of that this is their behaviour".
The former prime minister said the PPP had brought about the 18th Amendment by taking all stakeholders on board and using a parliamentary committee to create consensus.
"They know they can't do the amendment; if they wanted it they would have kept the environment good and talked to us," he added, referring to the treasury benches.
"How can these naive [people] do an amendment? They don't even understand the parliament."
Asad Mehmood of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) also opposed the bill, saying the government was conducting legislation to allow a few people with dual nationality to contest the elections.
"You are besmirching the sanctity of the vote," he said while addressing the treasury benches. "If you want to bring election reforms then why only on one note? [...] We are ready for a complete election reforms bill and making a parliamentary special committee."
Mehmood said his party would not accept any amendment such as this "through the back door".
Responding to the opposition, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said the government had no reservations over the opposition voicing its criticism over the bill, but asked them to also allow the government to respond.
"An important amendment is being presented and there are reasons for why it is being presented," he said of the open ballot legislation. "Historical traditions have been ingrained which are not grounds to be proud of; if we can move towards a transparent way [of elections] from them and the fingers that have been raised can be lowered then we are ready for this."
'Not the PTI assembly'
Earlier, the assembly session was marred by sharp exchanges as the opposition once again accused Speaker Qaiser of bias, saying he did not allow them to voice their opinions.
Qaiser wanted lawmakers to discuss the constitutional amendment bill the government plans to seek a vote on, but PML-N's Iqbal in his speech said he was "challenging" the speaker to affirm whether the PML-N had gotten its share of the calling-attention notices and adjournment motions taken up in the last 2.5 years.
"The chair purposely ignores PML-N's calling-attention notices and adjournment motions," he alleged, saying his party wanted to debate the rise in the prices of electricity and petrol, the LNG issue and wheat and sugar scandals but wasn't allowed to.
"I accept your challenge," responded Qaiser, who invited Iqbal to visit his secretariat and verify how many notices and motions were submitted by the PML-N and subsequently taken up. "I have done everything according to merit," he added.
Iqbal said "not a single" calling-attention notice had been taken in the ongoing parliamentary year, stressing that "this is not a scrap site that can be bulldozed."
He claimed that during the PML-N era, opposition members were allowed to speak for even two hours on end.
"But here we feel like the opposition has been given the status of unwelcome members. [...] Whenever we stand up, our mics are turned off," he said. "This is not the PTI's assembly, this is the National Assembly of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan."
Iqbal asked Qaiser to use his authority justly, saying the speaker did not belong to any one party.
"I am definitely the custodian of the house, I take care of the entire house and run it as per the law," said Qaiser in response, prompting boos from the opposition.
Refusing to back down, Iqbal then turned around and asked the opposition members present to raise their hands if they thought Qaiser was serving his position rightfully. "Nooo," came the chants, to which Qaiser said the members were only following Iqbal's instructions.
Iqbal also accused the government of targeting the opposition as part of its "revenge tactics" in order to make it ineffective, saying Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif, PPP leader Khursheed Shah and the opposition leader in Punjab, Hamza Shehbaz, were all jailed due to the same reason.
He said the government members subjected PML-N's Khawaja Asif, who was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau late last year, to "character assassination" and "media trial" regularly, but despite this, the court had sent him on judicial remand because it was "confused" by the evidence presented against him.
"NAB conducts inquiries of under-construction projects against us but an inquiry cannot be held into the Peshawar BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) project until it is complete," he added.
JUI-F's Mehmood also expressed reservations at the performance of the speaker, saying "this is not how the parliament is run."
He alleged that the amendments sought and differing notes presented on various bills by his party were ignored by the speaker.