Federal Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry stressed on Tuesday the need for the government and opposition to discuss and reach a consensus on electoral reforms proposed by the former, alleging that the latter continued to evade the matter as it could already see itself losing the next elections.
Addressing a National Assembly (NA) session, Chaudhry recalled that the bill for electoral reforms was presented in October last year and proposed 49 amendments to restore the credibility of elections.
The Elections (Amendment) Bill 2020 was introduced in the National Assembly on Oct 16, 2020, and it was passed by the relevant standing committee on June 8 amid the opposition’s protest.
Major changes proposed in the bill include more financial autonomy for the Election Commission of Pakistan, right of appeal to the Supreme Court by any aggrieved person on delimitation lists, provision to challenge the appointment of polling officers/staff within 15 days of appointment, increase in nomination fee from Rs30,000 to Rs50,000 for NA candidates and from Rs20,000 to Rs30,000 for provincial assembly candidates, the vacation of seats of a returned candidate if the oath is not taken within 60 days of the first sitting of the assembly, voting right for overseas Pakistanis and the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in elections.
Opposition parties have particularly objected to the use of EVMs and giving overseas Pakistanis the right to vote.
The PPP, in particular, has hinted that it might not sit with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government for the proposed electoral reforms.
Terming the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms a toothless body, PPP Secretary-General and former Senate chairperson Nayyar Hussain Bukhari earlier said the committee had no mandate and power.
In a more recent development, Leader of the Opposition in the NA Shehbaz Sharif had urged Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja to convene an all-party conference for building consensus on the electoral reforms to ensure that future elections in the country are held in a fair and transparent manner and reflect the genuine will of the electorate.
Chaudhry, however, had rejected the proposal, terming it ridiculous and tantamount to bypassing the parliament.
During his address in the NA on Tuesday, he said, "We invited the opposition to discuss these reforms, keeping our differences aside.
"But since they can gauge that they wouldn't even have enough candidates to contest on all seats, which add up to around 1,100, they are already promoting the narrative of the next elections being rigged — two years before the polls are scheduled."
Chaudhry claimed that the PPP and the PML-N were not in a position to field more than 400 to 450 candidates, as their influence was now limited to Sindh and central Punjab, respectively.
"Therefore, they deem it necessary to promote, through proper planning, the narrative of the coming elections being rigged. They can see that Imran Khan will form the government for another five years."
He added that in case the opposition was unwilling to negotiate with the government on electoral reforms, it may propose its suggestions on the matter in parliament.
The federal minister also emphasised the need for the opposition and the government to discuss judicial reforms and the policy on Afghanistan.
"We must hold talks on judicial reforms," he said, adding that the country's judicial system had many loopholes and that had led to Pakistan's rank decreasing in the corruption perception index.
He particularly pointed out the appointment of judges as one of the matters that the government and the opposition must discuss as part of the judicial reforms.
"Besides, we also need to sit together to formulate a policy on Afghanistan," he underscored.
Chaudhry warned that the situation in Afghanistan was worsening in the wake of the US pulling out its troops, adding that it would have a spillover effect in Pakistan.
"We need to seriously work on devising a policy [on Afghanistan]," he stressed.
Taking a jibe at Leader of the Opposition in the NA Shehbaz Sharif, he said while the PML-N leader was vocal about the need for the government and the opposition to set aside their differences and engage in talks to address the country's main issues during his speeches in the House, it seemed he had little say in his party.
"It looks like someone else makes decisions in the PML-N and they need to first decide on who has that authority. That person could then represent them in talks with the government," he remarked.
He said that while it was the opposition's right to criticise the government, they also had a duty to gove suggestions on various issues and contribute to improving the system.
'A decade of darkness'
Earlier in his address, Chaudhry held the opposition responsible for economic challenges being faced by Pakistan today, saying that the repayment of loans taken by the previous governments hampered growth.
"This is the third or the fourth year that we have not been able to increase the defence budget at par with our neighbour because a huge amount has to be spent on the repayment of loans taken by the PPP and PML-M governments in the past," he regretted.
The minister termed the period between 2008 and 2018 — 10 years when the PML-N and PPP were the ruling parties in the Centre — "a decade of darkness".
He said between 1947 and 2008, Pakistan's foreign debt was around Rs6,000 billion and by 2018, it increased to around Rs26,000 billion.
"Now, we have to pay Rs2,000 billion in interest every year."
The minister went on to say that the loans taken by the previous governments were spent on projects that proved to be of little use.
"They installed a coal-fired power plant in Sahiwal, where there is no coal. Coal had to be transported from Karachi and what we saw was the emergence of an environmental crisis due to their lack of planning."
He further pointed out that electricity projects launched by the previous governments between 2008 and 2018 were unnecessary as the country's total capacity to supply electricity to households was 1,400 megawatts at the time.
"When you couldn't distribute more electricity than that, why did you install new [electricity generation] plants?" Chaudhry questioned.
The minister particularly criticised the PPP, the ruling party in Sindh, for the lack of development in the province.
He once again said uplift funds for the province were embezzled and ended up in Dubai or Canada.
"The basic problem in Pakistan's system is that just two families had been in the power [for years] and they continued to use the money to buy properties in Dubai, Paris, London and Panama," he commented.
He then said that Imran Khan was the only hope for Pakistan.
Giving an example, he said before the first Covid-19 case was reported in Pakistan, the country was importing most medical goods.
"Today, we are the biggest importer of Covid material in the region and this would not have been possible without Imran Khan's government."