• Says commission bound to enforce laws
• Insists SC can interpret laws that contradict Constitution
• Assures vaccine acceptance issue to be resolved soon
• Cabinet approves import of one million tonnes of wheat

ISLAMABAD: Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry on Tuesday said it was the prerogative of only parliament and political parties to decide how general elections should be conducted and not of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

“Being a supreme national institution, it is the sole right of the parliament to enact laws on holding of elections,” the minister said while reacting to the ECP’s objections to 45 of the 72 clauses in the newly passed Electoral Reforms Bill 2021 at a post-cabinet meeting press conference.

However, he told Dawn that the federal cabinet did not discuss the commission’s objections.

The ECP had last week expressed concern over some clauses of the electoral reforms bill passed by the National Assembly, including voting rights for overseas Pakistanis and use of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM). The commission was of the opinion that many proposed amendments might violate constitutional requirements.

Mr Chaudhry, on the other hand, said the ECP was not authorised to question laws passed by the parliament. “The Election Commission has to implement all laws passed by the parliament, while matters related to laws contradicting the Constitution will be dealt with by the Supreme Court,” he added.

The minister said if a law contradicted the Constitution, then only the Supreme Court could take action to interpret the actual law, adding that the chief election commissioner (CEC) could be summoned by the privilege committee of the National Assembly for raising objections.

Criticising CEC Sikandar Sultan Raja indirectly, Mr Chaudhry said: “If anybody wants to do politics, he should leave his position, form a political party and participate in elections.”

Talking about the All-Party Conference (APC) on electoral reforms called by Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif, the minister said the government did not consider Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maryam Nawaz stakeholders in the current political set-up. “Holding APC on electoral reforms was actually aimed at weakening the parliament,” he added.

Mr Chaudhry, however, said the government was open to discussing the proposed electoral reforms with parliamentary leaders.

He said EVMs were being used in 20 countries, with Estonia being the most digitised country as it had now switched to internet voting. He said Pakistan was looking forward to introducing EVMs to hold transparent polls, adding that deciding a mechanism to conduct elections was the job of the country’s political leadership.

The minister said anyone intending to write a letter to the ECP should bear in mind that the parliament’s sanctity must not be violated.

Meanwhile, the federal cabinet approved import of one million tonnes of wheat to meet the increasing demand of the commodity in the country. The information minister said the government had already allowed the import of three million tonnes of wheat.

The cabinet also approved the introduction of the Public Properties Removal of Encroachment Bill 2021 to pave way for reclaiming government land encroached by certain elements. Under the law, an officer will be appointed by the federal government who will be empowered to issue show cause notice to an encroacher and, in case of an unsatisfactory answer, he can take necessary action which includes punishment and imposition of fine.

The information minister said if the encroacher refused to surrender the property, a rent would keep on accruing upon him which he would have to pay once he vacated the property. He said an appellate tribunal would be formed, which would have the authority to decide such cases within 30 days.

“There are federal properties that have been encroached upon, and several owned by the National Press Trust forcefully occupied by encroachers. Similarly, Pakistan Railways and Evacuee Trust will also be able to get their lands retrieved,” he added.

Regarding conditions imposed by some countries on acceptance of certain vaccines, Mr Chaudhry said these nations were holding negotiations with the World Health Organisation. “This is a global issue … and we expect this issue to be resolved soon,” he added.

He said the government had witnessed a rising interest among citizens towards vaccination which was encouraging. “This was particularly seen after we opened vaccination for all people above 18 years. Now on an average, 400,000 people are getting themselves inoculated daily; our target is to vaccinate a population of 70 million by the end of the year,” he added.

Shedding light on other decisions taken by the cabinet, the minister said a committee had been set up to review policies related to NGOs, adding that the committee would report back to the cabinet after examination.

He said the cabinet had also approved the appointment of five independent directors in Diamer-Bhasha Company and consented to give a three-month extension to Asim Rauf as chief executive officer of the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan. “His extension is only valid till the next CEO is appointed,” he added.

“A request was earlier floated to the government for the establishment of Supreme Court staff colony. A cabinet committee has been formed with Shireen Mazari as its head to oversee modalities of setting up such a colony,” he added.

Mr Chaudhry also announced that the cabinet had permitted Pakistanis residing in Luxembourg to hold dual nationality.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2021

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