LEADER of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif has written a letter to Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja urging him to convene an All Parties Conference to build consensus on electoral reforms. He has warned that the PTI government’s unilateral actions to force its electoral reforms bill without any consultation with stakeholders would make future elections controversial.

This letter comes in the wake of the ECP’s reservations over the electoral reforms bill bulldozed by the government in the National Assembly last week. The ECP has pointed out that various amendments in the Elections Act 2017 included in the bill constitute violations of the Constitution. The commission has also stated that it had conveyed these objections to the NA parliamentary committee but they were not reflected in the text of the bill that was adopted by the Assembly.

Read: ECP alarmed at 28 clauses of electoral reforms bill

The bill will now be discussed in the Senate committee before being put to vote in the upper house. However, it is necessary that before such a vote, a proper process of consultation takes place. The committee of the Senate will be the right forum for such a deliberation, but the suggestion by Mr Sharif that the ECP should call an APC also carries weight. Electoral reforms are the need of the hour and they must be adopted by the broadest consensus possible. In this respect, an APC will allow all political parties an opportunity to give their input and thereby acquire a stake in the reform. The ECP must also satisfy itself that all amendments fulfil constitutional requirements and do not encroach upon the powers of the commission. The government may want to consider this suggestion seriously so that its bill can garner a buy-in from all relevant stakeholders.

At this stage, however, the debate over the bill appears to be following predictably partisan lines. The government has in recent weeks also criticised the ECP on various issues, and the environment too does not seem very conducive for a constructive resolution of this controversy. This is exactly why there is a greater need to show flexibility by all concerned. If the government is reluctant to take part in an APC on electoral reforms, then it must ensure that parliament can be used for a similar purpose. What is required is for the opposition and the ECP to have access to a proper forum where their respective reservations can be discussed in detail. If some amendments in the bill go against constitutional requirements, then the government must address them at this stage and amend the bill accordingly. Similarly, concerns of the opposition, which have prompted Mr Sharif to write to the chief election commissioner, should also be addressed with a spirit of accommodation. It is in everyone’s interest that the electoral reforms bill is passed with consensus.

Published in Dawn, June 21st, 2021

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