WHEN sanity returns, it does so with whispering feet.
The electoral reforms bill bulldozed through the National Assembly by the government is a dangerous legislation that bodes ill for our democratic system of checks and balances. The bill dilutes the power of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) while ordering the implementation of half-baked measures like the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis. It is also scarred with reckless amendments like basing delimitation of constituencies on the number of registered voters instead of the population as is the standard.
In other words, the bill is a shocking manifestation of the PTI government’s unilateral push to have its way regardless of the consequences for the system as a whole. But now, finally, it appears that the government may stand chastened.
Much has happened since Dawn published a detailed story on the ECP’s objections and reservations on the electoral reforms bill. The story brought into public view the gravity of the ECP’s concerns and the consequences — including constitutional ones — of barrelling ahead with the bill and making it into law. Since its publication, there has been a flurry of activity in Islamabad with both the government and the opposition reaching out to the ECP for greater consultation. A delegation of the ECP has also briefed President Arif Alvi on the commission’s reservations and the president, according to a press release, has emphasised that ECP should have a major say in what is included in the bill.
On Friday, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and PML-N president Shehbaz Sharif fired off a letter to Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja in which he wrote: “The Election Commission of Pakistan has itself expressed serious concerns regarding the recent election bill bulldozed through the National Assembly in an objectionable manner. Any election-related legislation must be based on broad-based consensus … It is thus responsibility of ECP to hold an inclusive dialogue with all political parties … I urge you to invite all opposition parties for consultation to achieve a consensus-based reform plan, which can then be presented before the parliament for passage, to ensure that future elections are fair, transparent and reflect the genuine will of the electorate.”
The bill is a shocking manifestation of the PTI government’s unilateral push to have its way.
In a latest compilation of its reservations on the bill, the ECP has quantified its response to the amendments and the numbers tell their own story. The total number of amendments in the Election Act 2017 are 72. Of these 72, the new ECP document breaks down its response as follows:
Amendments not supported by the ECP for being inconsistent with the Constitution/Powers of ECP — (15)
Amendments not supported by the ECP for being inconsistent with the Elections Act 2017 — (5)
Amendments not supported by the ECP on administrative and general grounds — (17)
Amendments supported by the ECP but with some further amendments — (8)
Amendments supported with no objections — (27)
The numbers tell a grim story indeed. Out of the 72 amendments drafted by the government, the ECP does not support, fully or partially, 45 of these amendments. The equation 45/72 should give the government’s drafters of this controversial bill some serious food for thought. This is not how you make laws that are meant to improve on the electoral system. We need to be looking not just at the 2023 elections but the many ones after that. Who was it high up in this government who recently bemoaned the lack of long-term planning?
The president has set a constructive tone with the ECP. The leader of the opposition has made a sensible demand. The ECP has done its homework. The bill that has been bulldozed through the National Assembly should not be forced through the Senate in its present form. People involved in the negotiations — belated as they are — over the fate of the bill now say the bill will be debated afresh in the Senate standing committee. It is here that the opposition will get a chance to propose further amendments and have the controversial — and unconstitutional — clauses removed. According to these sources, the Senate committee is also expected to invite officials from the ECP to the meeting and these officials will then present the detailed analysis of the flaws in the bill that have already been reported by Dawn. The government has shown some flexibility on the matter. We may see some constructive headway in the coming days.
But don’t get your hopes too high. The PTI government’s obsession with EVMs and overseas Pakistanis enfranchisement may yet play the spoiler in this endless drama. The ECP’s analysis and opinion does not reject these two amendments in totality but says certain steps have to be taken before these amendments can become feasible. These steps will require debate, and patience and accommodation and, yes, some give and take. Knowing PTI, none of this would be easily digestible. So the chances of a solution emerging from this controversy versus the whole thing going up in flames is, well, fifty-fifty.
These odds don’t work too well when the future of free and fair elections are at stake. Such is the state of democratic politics in Pakistan today that something as basic as constructing a solid electoral game plan remains a toss-up. The ECP has done well to assert itself. This is the commission’s moment. It must not compromise on its constitutional mandate, and it must not — for any reason — allow its powers to be diluted. If anything, we need the ECP to be more strong, more empowered and more willing to flex its muscles to ensure that the will of the people is reflected accurately through the ballot box.
Sanity is good. Perhaps though it is time to stop whispering it, and start shouting from the rooftops.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2021