THE debate on electoral reforms is going nowhere. Even though the major political parties say reforms are critical, they are not getting any closer to even initiating a debate on the issue, let alone reaching a consensus. In fact, they appear to be either protesting and stalling the debate or forging ahead without engagement.

Given the storm caused by the recent bypolls, the issue of reforms is undoubtedly a pressing one with far-reaching consequences for our democracy. Why then, are stakeholders delaying the debate? And if this deadlock continues, will the government bring reforms without engaging the opposition, and choose the controversial route of making changes via ordinances which the federal cabinet has already approved?

The PTI has of late signalled its intent to push for reforms on several occasions. First, the prime minister in a series of tweets invited the opposition to sit with the government and discuss the matter. Next, his parliamentary affairs’ adviser Babar Awan held a press conference with key federal ministers and shared the details of the government’s proposals. In the midst of this, the prime minister even wrote a letter to the National Assembly speaker to initiate the process in parliament. Though these efforts reflect the government’s intentions, the opposition has rejected them.

There are two reasons behind the opposition’s pushback. The first is the acrimonious relationship between the opposition and the ruling party. Time and again, the collective opposition has criticised the prime minister’s attitude and said that he avoids debates by not coming to parliament — a valid criticism, given the hounding of opposition members in corruption cases and the prime minister’s poor attendance record in parliament. Secondly, as the PPP has pointed out, these reforms do not address the question of the proverbial elephant in the room: pre-poll and election day manipulation that has become a blight on the democratic process. This, too is a serious issue, and one that results in the creation and breaking up of political parties with pressure from external forces.

Though the opposition’s concerns are valid, its persistent refusal to participate in the process will mean that a solution will be reached without it. The government, which has not shied away from bullish behaviour in the past, will likely bring about electoral changes via ordinances, without the opposition’s input.

To avoid this situation, members of both the government and opposition need to take off their boxing gloves and really think of the chaos the country will be plunged into if yet another general election takes place in the midst of serious challenges. Key points of contention, such as electronic voting, electoral and software manipulation and the eligibility of dual nationals to contest must be ironed out. A sincere debate on a truly free election is in everyone’s interest. Those shying away from it have nothing to gain.

Published in Dawn, May 8th, 2021

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