Govt set to seek extension of election ordinance

Published August 2, 2021
This file photo shows the National Assembly. — APP/File
This file photo shows the National Assembly. — APP/File

ISLAMABAD: The government is set to move a resolution in the National Assembly seeking to extend the constitutional life of the controversial Election (Second Amendment) Ordin­ance 2021 for another 120 days which is to expire next month.

The resolution seeking extension in the period of the ordinance authorising the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to purchase electronic voting machines (EVMs) and enable overseas Pakistanis to participate in the election stands in the name of Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan on the 14-point agenda issued by the National Assembly Secretariat for the sitting of the assembly to be held on Monday (today) after a two-day recess.

The main opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had already moved a resolution seeking disapproval of the ordinance and the resolution was part of the National Assembly’s agenda on July 30. However, the assembly session had been adjourned on July 30 without taking up any agenda item after holding a discussion on the women’s rights in the wake of growing incidents of rape and domestic violence in the country.

The government is seeking the extension despite the fact that it had already got the ordinance passed in the form of a bill from the National Assembly last month. The bill is currently being scrutinised by the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs.

It was among those 21 bills which the government had literally bulldozed in the National Assembly after suspending the rules of business amid the opposition’s strong protest and boycott on June 10, just a day before presentation of the federal budget.

“The National Assembly resolves to extend the Election (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2021 (Ord. No. XI of 2021) for a further period of 120 days w.e.f. 05-09-2021, under proviso to sub-paragraph (ii) of paragraph (a) of clause (2) of Article 89 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” reads the resolution to be moved by the adviser.

The government is seeking the extension in the period of the ordinance before its expiry anticipating that the National Assembly will not be in session in the first week of September after continuing its session for nearly two months in order to fulfil the constitutional requirement of holding at least 130 sittings in a parliamentary year. The present assembly, which came into existence as a result of the July 2018 general elections, will be completing its third parliamentary year on Aug 12.

In May, the government in a hasty move and without taking the opposition parties into confidence had promulgated the Election (Second Amendment) Ordinance 2021authorising and binding the ECP to procure EVMs and enable overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes while staying in the countries of residence in the next general elections.

President Arif Alvi had promulgated the ordinance under Article 89 of the Constitution only two days after National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser had constituted a committee of the cabinet members to engage the opposition on the issue of electoral reforms.

Through the ordinance, the president had introduced two amendments to Section 94(1) and Section 103 of the Elections Act 2017.

“The Commission (ECP) shall, with the technical assistance of the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) or any other authority and agency, enable overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote during general elections in their country of residence,” says the amended Section 94(1), while the amended Section 103 states: “The Commission (ECP) shall procure electronic voting machines for casting of votes in general elections.”

Previously, the relevant section stated: “The ECP may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis and utilisation of EVMs and biometric verification system in by-elections in addition to the existing manual procedures for voter verification, casting and counting of votes to assess the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of the EVMs and biometric verification system.”

Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry, while justifying the promulgation of the ordinance, had explained that the government’s move was aimed at providing ample time to the ECP to make arrangements for the use of EVMs and for enabling overseas Pakistanis to cast their votes in the next general elections.

He recalled that the ECP before the 2018 general elections had argued that the commission had not been given sufficient time to make such arrangements. Therefore, he said, the ECP was being provided an opportunity to seek the assistance of Nadra or any other agency for making the arrangements before the next elections. He said a Spanish firm had already been engaged for providing technical assistance to the ECP to facilitate voting by overseas Pakistanis in the elections. He said the purpose of promulgating the ordinance was to show the PTI government’s commitment towards the two issues.

Asked as to what would happen when the ordinance would lapse after completing its 120-day constitutional life, the minister had sounded confident, saying they would get it approved in the form of an amendment bill from parliament claiming to have the required numbers.

The party position in both houses of parliament, however, shows that the ruling alliance has a simple majority in the National Assembly, but it is still in minority in the opposition-dominated Senate.

The minister had claimed that the ECP was on board on both issues.

However, the ECP had rejected the minister’s claim that it was on board on the matter. An official at the ECP had stated that the commission was not part of the meetings chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan on the use of technology in the elections, while the meetings held at Aiwan-i-Sadr were “academic in nature” where only the concept of voting machines and their specifications, and not policy issues, came under discussion.

He recalled that PM Khan had been shown a nine-year-old “lab-produced voting machine” that the ECP had rejected at the very beginning for lacking features of international standards. He said the government had promulgated the ordinances in haste and neither the government nor the ECP had the solution available with them. “They have simply done it on the basis of imagination,” he remarked.

The ECP official said internet voting was not in use anywhere across the world, except Estonia, where 175,000 out of total 900,000 voters opted for it.

Reiterating the ECP’s stated position, he said the commission was not against technology but at the same time could not support the idea of using insecure technology. He had warned that employing the technologies in haste could be counterproductive and compromise quality of polls. He claimed that international and local NGOs, too, had endorsed ECP’s stance on record.

The ruling PTI had been pursuing these two issues since the 2013 general elections. The PTI members in the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms, under then finance minister Ishaq Dar, had raised the issues on multiple occasions. It was on PTI’s insistence that the provisions of Sections 94(1) and 103 were included in the Elections Act 2017.

President Alvi was also a member of the committee at that time and was in the forefront in convincing the ECP for the use of EVMs and the voting by overseas Pakistanis.

The ECP had conducted a mock exercise in 2015 in four countries and later commission officials informed the committee that the exercise carried out in Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US and the UAE had failed for a number of technical and legal reasons.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd , 2021

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