• Vows to go for reform without opposition’s support
• Cabinet members emphasise use of electronic voting machines
• Voting right for overseas Pakistanis suggested
• Nawaz blasts change of result through rigging, coercion

ISLAMABAD: Inviting the opposition parties again for talks on electoral reforms, the government on Monday vowed to go ahead with its reforms plan even without their support, claiming to have the needed parliamentary strength to carry out most of the proposed changes to the election laws, including the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs).

Speaking at a news conference, federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan presented salient features of the proposed reforms for which they would have to bring amendments to the Elections Act 2017 as well as the Constitution.

The two cabinet members blas­ted the opposition parties for oppo­sing the electoral reforms “merely for the sake of opposition”.

The government’s main proposals include the use of EVMs, change of formula for delimitation of constituencies, right of participation in the election for overseas Pakistanis, identifiable and open ballots for Senate polls, condition of at least 10,000 members for registration of a political party, binding political parties to hold annual conventions, transparency in the appointment of the election staff and making it mandatory for an elected member to take the oath of office within 60 days after winning the election.

The opposition parties are opposing the use of EVMs, terming it not viable for Pakistan.

Mr Awan said they were suggesting some 49 changes to the Elections Act 2017. He said Section 103 would be amended to allow the use of EVMs that had already been in use in the Lahore High Court Bar Association elections for four years. He said this would bring an end to the controversies recently witnessed in the by-elections in Daska and Karachi.

He said by amending Section 94, they wanted to give the right of vote to the overseas Pakistanis.

Mr Awan said there must be democracy within the political parties for which they had suggested an amendment to Section 202 under which a political party would have to submit a list of at least 10,000 members for registration. He said a new Section 213-A was being added to the act, making it compulsory for the registered political parties to hold their annual conventions to help party members to keep a check on the leadership.

The adviser said Section 15 was also being amended to allow the contesting candidates to challenge the appointment of polling staff within 15 days.

Mr Awan said the new delimitation of the constituencies would be done on the basis of the number of registered voters and not the total population to end the disparity in terms of the number of voters in the constituencies.

Citing the example of former finance minister of the PML-N government Ishaq Dar, who has been living in London in self-exile without taking the oath as senator after winning the election in 2018, the adviser said they had proposed an amendment under which an elected member of the nat­ional or provincial assemb­lies would have to take the oath within 60 days otherwise the seat would be dec­lared vacant. He said more financial autonomy for the Election Commission of Pak­istan had been suggested.

He said two constitutional amendments would be introduced in the parliament for the use of open and identifiable ballots in the Senate election and to allow the overseas Pakistanis to contest the elections.

Debate on amendments

The adviser said that they would present these proposals before civil society organisations, All Pakistan Newspapers Society, Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors, bar councils, bar associations, press clubs and other relevant stakeholders and watchdog bodies to get their input.

Mr Awan said the government had introduced the Elections (Amendment) Bill in the National Assembly containing most of the proposals on Oct 16, 2020, but the opposition was not ready to have a discussion on it. He said the opposition had rejected the formation of the special committee whereas it had been boycotting the standing committees and even the House Business Advisory Committee meetings which showed its lack of interest in the issue.

On the other hand, he said despite Covid situation, the government had been able to meet the constitutional requirement regarding the number of days for the parliamentary sittings.

Mr Awan said those making hue and cry over the results of the 2018 elections had failed to produce even a single evidence before the election tribunals.

The information minister asked the PPP and the PML-N to openly state their stance over the issue of granting the right of vote and election to the overseas Pakistanis. He said the government had the required majority in the National Assembly and the Senate to get these amendments passed without the opposition’s support. However, he said, they required the support of the opposition parties for carrying out constitutional amendments allowing the overseas Pakistanis to contest the elections and for the open Senate ballots. He said they had decided to bring the electoral reforms even without the opposition’s support.

Responding to a question, the minister ruled out the possibility of hacking of the EVMs, saying it would not be possible as these machines would not be connected to the internet and be in standalone position.

The information minister said the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government wanted to introduce modern technology in the electoral process to end the controversies about election results.

The minister said the opposition alleged that the result transmission system (RTS) had failed in the last general elections and that Forms 45 were not given to them, but when they were asked to bring the details of these allegations before the parliamentary committee, they failed to do so.

Offer for talks

Mr Chaudhry said the opposition parties used to say that the offer for talks had not come directly from the prime minister. He said the PM then directly asked the opposition parties through a tweet to sit together for finalisation of electoral reforms. The prime minister also had written a letter to NA Speaker Asad Qaiser asking him to constitute a parliamentary committee for electoral reforms, he added. He regretted that the opposition parties, particularly the PML-N, was not taking the issue seriously.

He said people started suspecting foul whenever the results were delayed in any election. He said after the introduction of EVMs, election results would be out within minutes which would help restore public trust in the electoral process.

Castigating the PML-N for stating that the electoral reforms should be decided by the ECP, the minister said that parliament was the only forum for legislation.

Mr Chaudhry said PML-N leaders, including Shehbaz Sharif, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal, were opposing the idea of EVMs without having seen the machines. He asked the opposition parties to send their technical experts to see the EVMs’ working.

Meanwhile, PML-N’s supremo Nawaz Sharif through a tweet said the issue was not of electoral reforms, but the sanctity of vote. “Everyone knows who is behind desecration of votes and stealing the mandate of the people. Unless this issue is resolved, EVMs will be useless like the RTS,” said Mr Sharif, demanding that the practice of changing the results through rigging and coercion must come to an end.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2021

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