Govt steps up onslaught on CEC, says he’s in league with Sharifs

Published September 21, 2021
ISLAMABAD: Minister for Railways Azam Swati and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan addressing a press conference on Monday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
ISLAMABAD: Minister for Railways Azam Swati and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan addressing a press conference on Monday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

• Minister asks CEC to explain on whose instruction he’s destroying ECP
• Babar says govt willing to sit with opposition
• Opposition asks ECP to try ministers, advisers for contempt

ISLAMABAD: Days after being served with a notice over his caustic remarks that institutions such as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should be “set on fire”, federal Minister for Railways Azam Swati renewed his tirade, this time singling out Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) Sikandar Sultan Raja for what he said “messing around” with the government.

“We are standing as an iron wall, so stop us if you can,” the minister said while speaking at a press conference here with Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan on Monday.

Raising questions over the appointment of the CEC who happened to be the ruling party’s nominee, Mr Swati said the government had to swallow a “bitter pill” on his appointment to preserve the sanctity of this “constitutional institution” though “I don’t want to and won’t reveal how you [CEC] were appointed”.

“If we didn’t respect the ECP, we would have never appointed you,” the minister claimed, adding that the government confirmed his appointment to abide by the Constitution and “protect the ECP’s dignity” despite knowing that he was allegedly close to the leadership of opposition party.

Mr Swati said the government only wanted uncontroversial, fair and free elections and a system which “future generations can’t point fingers at”. He questioned why the CEC had made no progress on pilot programmes as ordered by the Supreme Court or the parliament through the Elections Act 2017.

“I again remind you, Sikandar Sultan Raja sahib, that only the one who accepts defeat loses. Come and see whether the law and the Constitution are greater or your own being,” the railways minister said before asking the CEC to explain under whose instructions he was destroying such “a great institution”.

“I, this nation and overseas Pakistanis want to ask you this,” he added.

About the notice sent to him by the ECP, Mr Swati questioned how many such notices had been sent to his political opponents. “How many notices has the ECP sent to Maryam Nawaz and Fazlur Rehman that it has sent a notice to me?” he said.

Responding to a question on if the government was ready to sit with the ECP, Mr Swati claimed: “We don’t have a quarrel with the ECP, but with Raja Sultan.”

The minister said the press conference was meant to put across the message to the CEC only that he could not violate the law or the Constitution.

The government was committed to get passed the electoral reform bills involving introduction of voting machines and I-voting facility for overseas Pakistanis, he said, adding that the ECP could procure machines before giving the warning that the apex court would be moved if it was not done.

Asserting that the incumbent government wanted to put in place a system to ensure transparent and credible polls, Adviser Awan regretted that a perception was being created that the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf would try to rig the elections through voting machines in 2023.

The adviser, who was a cabinet member during the Pakistan Peoples Party’s last stint in power, pointed out that the idea of using machines was first floated during PPP’s tenure. However, “the electoral reforms are being made controversial,” he said, adding that the government was ready to extend an olive branch to the opposition to work together on electoral reforms.

Mr Awan said the opposition wanted the electoral reforms bill to be presented before a committee comprising lawmakers from both houses of the parliament. “The government is ready to do it,” he announced. He said he would request Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani to form a committee in this regard, but he cast aspersions on the opposition’s demand fearing that they would play “committee, committee” and not arrive at any conclusion.

Answering another question, the adviser said the CEC and opposition should be asked about objections. He said they should be questioned why they were afraid of voting machines. He, too, clarified that the government did not have problems with the ECP. He said there were issues with the CEC only, while calling him a “representative of Shahbaz Sharif”.

The adviser claimed the government had time and again made attempts to speak to the ECP and the opposition on reforms, but all such attempts could not succeed. “The government will once again invite the opposition to negotiations and make them part of reforms through this committee to solve a very big problem of this nation — electoral rigging and to make elections acceptable,” he said.

He, however, declared that the government would not sit idle if it did not happen. It was not possible that the prime minister abandoned his electoral promises.

Opposition’s reaction

Blasting the federal ministers for opening a front with the ECP, Pakistan Peoples Party Vice President Senator Sherry Rehman asked the ECP to take a strong notice of the tirade.

Observing that those responsible should be tried for contempt under the Constitution, Elections Act and the relevant rules, the PPP senator said the federal ministers and advisers to the prime minister should be asked under whose instructions they were unleashing propaganda against the ECP and the CEC.

She alleged that the government wanted the ECP to blindly follow its dictates just as the anti-graft watchdog had been allegedly doing.

Senator Rehman termed the ECP’s position on voting machines “realistic” and said the PTI government lacked arguments against the ECP’s viewpoint. “Accusing others to build a false narrative is their old habit,” she said, adding that the PTI government’s negative attitude was harmful not only for democracy but the entire country. “This policy of confrontation with constitutional institutions must be reviewed and reversed,” she exhorted.

Spokesman for the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) Hafiz Hamdullah asked the ministers to respond to the ECP notices instead of threatening and hurling allegations against the ECP. He said the ECP had raised valid legal and technical points, which warranted an apt reply. But the government wanted to “impose its electoral reforms agenda”, he added.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2021

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