SANITY appears to have at last prevailed in the matter of electoral reforms. On Tuesday, at a meeting of National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser with parliamentarians from the treasury and opposition benches, both sides agreed on the formation of a parliamentary panel to work on the issue. The welcome development has not come a moment too soon.
For the past few months, the ugly war of words between the government and the opposition, particularly regarding the proposed use of electronic voting machines and the enfranchisement of overseas Pakistanis through i-voting in the next elections had reached fever pitch. It was difficult to see where the confrontation would lead especially if the government opted to bulldoze the two contentious election-related bills through a joint sitting of parliament as was being speculated. What is beyond doubt, however, is that extreme polarisation over such an important issue as electoral reforms weakens the already not very robust foundations of democracy in the country.
Most unfortunately, the government has attempted to make the Election Commission of Pakistan controversial at a time when its input is critical for the poll reforms under consideration. Sitting ministers launched blistering attacks on it in the wake of the ECP listing 37 objections to the use of EVMs in the next election. Railways Minister Azam Swati accused its members of taking bribes to rig polls while Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry alleged that the chief election commissioner — whose name was among the government’s suggested nominees to the post — was “a mouthpiece for the opposition”. The ECP rejected the allegations as baseless and issued notices to the ministers to produce evidence to back their claims.
Now that both sides have opted to take a more considered course of action, they must avoid name-calling and questioning each other’s motives. That would only vitiate the atmosphere and intensify the trust deficit between them. The ECP’s feedback would be integral to the discussion; it must have confidence it can conduct free and fair polls under the amendments proposed to the election law. It is not yet known whether the parliamentary panel will take up only the amendments dealing with EVMs and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis or examine all the proposed electoral reforms. In any event, decisions must be taken with consensus.
The objective must be to arrive at comprehensive and far-reaching reform; past reports of foreign election observers could also be consulted to this end. All the political parties in an election must have trust in the process under which it is being held. Otherwise, we will simply have more elections that are contested, with the fallout poisoning the political arena. A working relationship between the government and opposition is essential to legislative work and governance, both of which are adversely affected due to the ensuing rancour — as we have seen most recently after the 2018 election.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2021