Perilous reform road

Published October 1, 2021

THE PTI government has referred the controversial electoral reforms bill to a joint session of parliament where it intends to bulldoze it through despite all objections from the opposition benches. The government had pushed the bill through the National Assembly earlier but it had been held up in the Senate where the relevant committee had not approved it. In a promising move, the speaker of the National Assembly had convened a meeting of members from both sides of the aisle and agreed to form a committee to discuss electoral reforms and build a consensus around them. However, now it appears the government has decided to revert back to bulldozing the bill through the joint session, where it has the required numbers, and making it into a law.

This spells trouble. The most controversial proposals in the bill — the use of electronic voting machines in the next general elections and the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis — remain bitterly disputed by other stakeholders. The Election Commission of Pakistan has also expressed reservations on both issues saying they require more time and preparation to be implemented successfully. The government, however, has thrown the gauntlet and the opposition members stated unequivocally on the floor of the House on Wednesday that the elections had already become controversial. The conflict will now exacerbate the already tense political situation and could create all sorts of unintended consequences. The government would be well aware that the matter could end up in court and the controversy would drag on at a time when clarity about the process of the next elections is important to inject confidence into them. The ECP will also be put into a difficult situation as it has raised red flags on some very practical limitations concerning these two proposals and the government has not been able to provide either answers or solutions to these concerns. A far better approach would be to not rush the bill through the joint session and give more time to all stakeholders to discuss these matters in detail. All legal and political problems linked to this controversy should be deliberated threadbare either on the floor of the House, or in a relevant committee like the one that the speaker had promised to constitute. The government should pause before hurtling down a reckless path. Too much rides on the general elections and everything possible should be done to make them fair, transparent and non-controversial.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2021

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