Railways Minister Azam Khan Swati on Friday lashed out at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), accusing it of "always" rigging polls and said such institutions should be “set on fire”.
He made these remarks during a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs chaired by Senator Taj Haider to discuss proposed amendments to the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2021.
The standing committee has 14 members with four from the PTI, three from the PPP, two from PML-N, two independents, and one each from the BAP, the MQM-P and the JUI-P.
Before the committee voted on the proposed amendments, Swati came down hard on the ECP and alleged that the commission took bribes to rig polls.
He said the ECP was making fun of the government, adding the commission was not entitled to “ruin” democracy in the country.
Following his remarks, the ECP officials who were present during the meeting staged a walkout in protest.
Swati's remarks also drew criticism from the opposition. PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz said that the party had only ever highlighted negative characters within institutions.
"But the government is threatening to set a whole institution on fire and there is no one to [hold them] accountable,” she said.
PPP Senator Sherry Rehman called out the minister's "seriously inappropriate behaviour".
“If it does not bend to their will, to say a constitutional institution should be burnt down is like saying let’s just dispense with all democratic norms and get on with our model of one-party authoritarianism. Rig the system for us or trash it,” she said.
'ECP not above the law'
During today's meeting, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan said that the election commission was not above the law and had to work within its ambit.
The ECP in a document submitted on Sep 7 to the standing committee had warned that electronic voting machines (EVMs) were prone to tampering and the software could easily be altered. “It is nearly impossible to ensure that every machine is honest,” the ECP had noted in the document.
Responding to the ECP's reservations, Awan questioned the commission for delaying work on introducing EVMs. "Why do we feel threatened by the technology?" he asked.
He said the government had also written a letter to the commission about the budget and security of EVMs, but didn't receive a response.
Haider stressed the need to listen to the ECP's objections regarding the proposed amendments to the election law.
At one point, Swati walked out of the meeting with his fellow parliamentarians while calling out the chairman for allegedly not allowing government members to take part in the session through video conferencing.
Afterwards, the committee — in the absence of the members of the treasury benches — rejected the proposed amendments concerning voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, use of EVMs in the next general elections and holding Senate polls through the open ballot.
The Elections (Amendment) Bill 2020 was introduced in the National Assembly on Oct 16, 2020, and it was passed by the standing committee concerned on June 8 amid the opposition’s protest. The bill sailed through the lower house on June 11.
CEC acting as opposition 'mouthpiece': Chaudhry
Later in the day, three federal ministers launched another blistering attack on the ECP, with Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry accusing the chief election commissioner (CEC) of acting as a "mouthpiece for the opposition".
Addressing a press conference, Chaudhry said Prime Minister Imran Khan's government was the first which took up the task to make elections fair and transparent and gave recommendations for electoral reforms and took them to the parliament.
He claimed that no political stakeholder was satisfied with the current electoral system, saying the opposition "allege rigging wherever they lose". He added that the solution lay in the country's political leadership sitting together and deciding the appropriate electoral process.
"The logic of ECP is strange; they say the parliament does not have the right to tell them what the system will be, even though the Constitution clearly states elections will be held in accordance with the law," he said.
"You won't make the law," he told the ECP, saying the authority to legislate exclusively belonged to the parliament.
Chaudhry said it was not the entire ECP that was opposed to the government's proposals, but "the chief election commissioner is more interested in acting as a mouthpiece of the opposition."
He added that it was possible that the CEC had "personal sympathies" for PML-N supremo and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif due to his close connections with the latter, saying the government had no problems with the same. "But whether it is the election commissioner or any institution, they will have to function while accepting the parliament. No individual can be allowed to undermine the parliament."
Speaking about the war of words in today's Senate meeting, Chaudhry said the behaviour of ECP officials was tantamount to "rejecting the privilege of the parliament".
He added that if the ECP had reservations on any technology then "they should stop playing media-media. If the chief election commissioner wants to do politics like this then I would invite him to fight elections."
Chaudhry questioned how the CEC could conduct the next elections if the PTI, being the largest political party in the country, did not have confidence in him. He called upon the CEC to "review your behaviour, don't act as a tool for small parties and move forward as the head of an institution".
He alleged that the CEC had raised "stupid" objections regarding EVMs. "If you openly use this for politics then a response will come and today it came," he said.
Turning his guns at the opposition, the minister said it was made up of "intellectual dwarfs", and that opposition leaders were only concerned about their personal court cases. "They talking about honouring the vote daily but whenever they get a chance to do a 'deal', they jump at the opportunity," he alleged.
Govt 'bulldozed' by Senate committee: Awan
Prime minister's adviser Babar Awan said during the Senate committee meeting, he had been allowed to speak on only five points out of the 37 objections raised by the ECP on the introduction of EVMs.
"This has happened for the first time that a parliamentary committee bulldozed the government and didn't allow it to speak," he added.
He further said the opposition committee chairman had refused to give the right of vote over video link to a senator from Balochistan, saying it was clear that "the opposition has been exposed today."
The adviser alleged that the opposition were "enemies of reforms", supported the status quo and were opposed to the participation of overseas Pakistanis in the government.
He said the bill was rejected by the Senate committee even though the government had a majority because the senator from Balochistan hadn't been allowed to vote.
Awan announced that the government would call a joint session of the parliament on September 13 at 11am, while a session of the National Assembly will be called two days later in which the elections amendment bill will be referred.