Govt powers through 33 crucial bills in joint session; allows voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, use of EVMs
Amid fervent protest by the opposition, the government on Wednesday managed to bulldoze amendments to the Elections Act, 2017, in the joint session of parliament, thereby allowing the use of electronic voting machines and granting voting rights to overseas Pakistanis.
This prompted the opposition to tear copies of the agenda and walk out of the session in protest. Lawmakers also gathered around the treasury benches, chanting slogans against Prime Minister Imran Khan and his government.
In order to avoid a situation where lawmakers from the opposition and government got into a physical altercation, the sergeants-at-arms were seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder to create a barrier between the two sides.
The opposition argued that as per the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the National Assembly, 2007, the government required a majority of the total membership of the NA and Senate to get a bill passed in a joint session, which amounts to 222 members. However, the government side contended that as per Article 72 of the Constitution, it required a simple majority of the members present during a joint sitting to get a bill passed. NA Speaker Asad Qaiser ruled that the Constitution held precedence over the Rules.
Earlier, the bill on the use of EVMs was deferred at the request of Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan, but it was later taken up again and put up to a vote.
The government then barrelled ahead with numerous other important bills including:
- The Elections (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The International Court of Justice (Review and Re-consideration) Bill, 2021
- The Islamabad Capital Territory Charities Registration, Regulation and Facilitation Bill, 2021
- The National College of Arts Institute Bill, 2021
- The SBP Banking Services Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Muslim Family Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (Amendment in Section 4)
- The Muslim Family Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021 (Amendment in Section 7)
- The Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill, 2021
- The Hyderabad Institute for Technical and Management Sciences Bill, 2021
- The Islamabad Rent Restriction (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Corporate Restructuring Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Financial Institutions (Secured Transactions) (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Federal Public Service Commission (Validation of Rules) Bill, 2021
- The University of Islamabad Bill, 2021
- The Loans for Agricultural, Commercial and Industrial Purposes (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Pakistan Academy of Letters (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Port Qasim Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Gwadar Port Authority (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Maritime Security Agency (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Emigration (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Privatisation Commission (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Covid-19 (Prevention of Hoarding) Bill, 2021
The following bills presented through supplementary agenda were also passed:
- The Islamabad Food Safety Authority Bill
- The Greek, Ayurvedic and Homeopathic Practitioners Bill, 2021
- The Prevention of Corruption Act (Amendment) Bill
- The Electric Power (Amendment) Bill, 2021
- The Provincial Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill
A total of 33 bills were approved, including two opposition bills — the Al-Karam International Institute Bill, 2021, presented by the PML-N's Syed Javed Hasnain, and the Islamabad Capital Territory Prohibition of Corporal Punishment Bill, 2021, presented by PML-N MNA Mehnaz Akber Aziz.
One bill — the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021 — was deferred, while an amendment proposed by the Jamaat-i-Islami seeking public execution of rapists was rejected.
The speaker then prorogued the joint session for an indefinite period.
ICJ review and reconsideration bill passed
The parliament in today's joint sitting also passed a bill to provide for the right of review and reconsideration in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to bring into effect the judgment of the International Court of Justice.
The International Court of Justice (Review and Re-consideration) Bill, 2020, was moved by Law Minister Farogh Nasim. It was passed with a majority vote.
The statement of objects and reasons of the bill says that the government of India initiated proceedings against Pakistan in the ICJ concerning alleged violations of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in the matter of the detention and trial of an Indian national, Commander Kulbhushan Sudhir Jadhav of Indian spy agency RAW, who was sentenced to death by a military court in Pakistan in April 2017.
The ICJ gave its judgment on July 17, 2019, wherein it observed that Pakistan was under an obligation to provide by means of its own choosing effective review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence of Jadhav, so as to ensure that full weight was given to the effect of the violation of the rights set forth in Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, taking account of paragraphs 139, 145 and 146 of the judgment.
In order to give full effect to the said judgment, it is necessary that a mechanism for review and reconsideration of Pakistan's own choice be provided.
'Evil and vicious machines'
As the session started at around noon, PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif termed electronic voting machines (EVMs) "evil and vicious machines" and accused the government of not being sincere in creating a consensus on electoral reforms.
Addressing the joint session of parliament, Shehbaz said that the government and its allies wanted to bulldoze important bills. He termed it "illegal" and said that it was equivalent to spoiling the traditions of parliament.
Shehbaz, who had earlier today written a letter to National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser airing his grievances about the haste in passing the bills without a consensus, said that initially the joint session was delayed after the government said it would consult with the opposition on the issue.
"You sent a letter to me and the whole joint opposition," he said, adding that in response he submitted a comprehensive answer with "great suggestions". "But speaker, you cancelled your contact and we received no answer from you."
Commenting on the proposal for consultations, he called it a "ploy to buy time" so that the government could secure the votes it needed. "You had no intention of doing consultations on the issue."
He said that there are always allegations of rigging during the elections. "This is the first time in history that there are allegations of rigging before the elections."
He claimed that the "selected government" wanted to introduce EVMs because it can no longer ask the people for votes.
Talking about the results transmission system (RTS), the opposition leader said that the government came into power in 2018 using the 'road transport system'. "Now the road transport system is being abandoned for the evil [and] vicious machine."
Shehbaz asked the speaker to defer the joint session so “comprehensive consultation” could take place on the matter of electoral reforms.
Addressing Qaiser, Shehbaz said that the people will not forgive him if he allowed the bills to be bulldozed in today's session and urged him to recognise his responsibility as speaker of the House. He also decried the "illegal and unconstitutional" way the bills were presented.
He said the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which is responsible for carrying out fair and transparent elections, had also expressed its reservations about EVMs. "They want to pass these laws despite their reservations."
He said that the party that had once talked about democracy, transparency and change, now wanted to pass "black laws".
"If you allow this black law to be passed, then Pakistan will be severely damaged for which responsibility will be on you and them," he said while addressing Qaiser.
Shehbaz also stated that the several countries had rejected the "evil and vicious machines".
"If the government used the energy that it is spending on this issue to tackle inflation, then we might have seen a difference. But they are not concerned. They are only concerned with remaining in power without securing the people's vote."
'EVMs will be used to bury evil, vicious designs'
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi began his speech by calling it a "historic day", stating that parliament will pass laws to make the electoral process "clean and transparent".
"Shehbaz said that the government wanted to introduce a black law. Absolutely not, the government wants to wash away the blackness of the past."
The minister added that the government did not want to bulldoze legislation, and said that they had consulted opposition members so that their reservations could be incorporated into the bills. "You didn't pay attention."
Qureshi also rejected the impression that the government had previously cancelled the session because it did not have the numbers. "If we didn't have the numbers, then how are we presenting these bills today? There is solidarity in government ranks and our allies are standing with us."
He said that the government followed legislative procedures, adding that the session was adjourned to remove the questions some of their allies had.
"You call EVMs 'evil and vicious machines' and that is your right. But EVMs are not evil and vicious machines, they are being introduced to bury evil and vicious designs." He said that the government wanted to prioritise a credible and transparent electoral process.
The minister said that overseas Pakistanis were the nation's asset and the government wanted to involve them in policy and decision-making.
Following Qureshi's address, there was a heated exchange between NA Speaker Qaiser and a parliamentarian. Qaiser warned the member of suspension and told him to "stay within your limits".
"Is this the [right] way to talk?" the NA Speaker remarked before inviting PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to deliver his speech.
Bilawal criticises 'one-sided reforms'
Addressing the session, Bilawal criticised the government's "one-sided" electoral reforms which have never before been seen in the country's history.
He said that during the government of former premier Nawaz Sharif, the PML-N had a two-third majority. "If that government had unilaterally decided and used the majority to force reforms, then the PTI and the PPP would not have been able to do anything.
"If they had decided to introduce a Constitutional amendment, then we would have to accept their decision. But they achieved a consensus," he said.
He said that if the government had followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, then the opposition would have taken part in the legislation process. "If we carried out reforms together then the next election would not be controversial and it would have been Khan Sahab's success."
However, he said that the opposition would not accept the results of the next election if the government continued in the manner it was proceeding in.
He said that the PML-N and the PPP supported giving voting rights to overseas Pakistanis. "Despite this, the government wants to carry out one-sided legislation."
Bilawal noted that overseas Pakistanis had representation in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and called for introducing a similar system.
"How can we accept your suggestion where Pakistanis sitting in Paris, California and Britain decide for the people of Karachi and the tribal areas? They should have their own electoral college."
He said that the government's efforts, that were based on bad intentions, had been underway for some time and said that it had given an NRO to Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav.
"If you have to give relief to anyone then it should be the poor people of Pakistan who are facing a multitude of problems [...] how can you expect that we will permit you to use this House to give an NRO to that Indian spy?"
Govt laying basis of discord
Speaking next, JUI-F's Maulana Asad Mahmood accused the government of laying the basis of discord and chaos by introducing such laws, adding that if the government bulldozed the legislation, the nation would not accept it.
The JUI-F lawmaker warned that a law, which had become controversial even before passage, would lead to protests in the country for which the government and its supporters would be held responsible. He advised the government not to pass the law in haste.
When it was his turn to speak, MNA Mohsin Dawar — an activist of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement — reminded the lawmakers that one of their colleagues, Ali Wazir, was not present in the session.
"It is sad and shameful that Ali Wazir is not present in this house," he lamented, adding that while negotiations were being done with groups such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan and even the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, MNA Ali Wazir was languishing in jail for his one speech.
"It is sad that Waziristan is not represented here," he said, adding that any legislation on the conduct of elections must be done with the consensus of all lawmakers as has been the case in the past.
Bill presented in session
After the speeches, Awan presented the bill to amend the Elections Act, 2017 [The Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021]. The lawmakers present in the session voted on whether the bill should be tabled in the Assembly.
Those lawmakers who were in agreement stood up in their seats while those opposed to the motion remained seated.
Some time later, the speaker announced that the motion to present the bill had been passed with 221 lawmakers voting for and 203 against it.
However, the opposition claimed that the counting had discrepancies and that the prime minister's advisers, who are not in fact elected officials, had also been included in the count. At this, the speaker ordered a recount.
Govt confident of passing bills
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who arrived at Parliament House shortly before the session was expected to begin, was hounded by the media as he made his way to chair a meeting of the PTI's parliamentary team but remained tight-lipped. The government's coalition partners were also part of the meeting.
"You are conducting so many meetings. Are you worried about something despite having a majority?" asked a reporter.
"Who is meeting people?" PM Imran shot back as he appeared to discourage the impression that he had to convince his allies for support in today’s session.
"When a sportsman steps onto the playing field, he is prepared for every possible outcome and vows to perform better than his opponent," he added.
Speaking to the media after the parliamentary party meeting, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said that the premier had thanked the government's allies for their support as well as lawmakers who had managed to arrive despite personal circumstances.
Chaudhry said lawmakers had expressed confidence in the premier's leadership, which would be reflected in the joint session. He said that the bills the government would table would be "easily passed".
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who also spoke to the media at Parliament House, said that the government had complete trust in its allies. "We trust them because the people of their constituencies have given them the mandate," he said.
He said that the government wanted fair and transparent polls which would strengthen democracy in the country. The minister said that the government wanted to protect the rights of the people, which was the basic responsibility of legislators.
Shehbaz writes letter to NA speaker
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari — who arrived in Islamabad on Tuesday evening — met with Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly Shehbaz Sharif at the latter's chamber. The two also attended a parliamentary meeting of the joint opposition.
Later, a delegation of opposition leaders called on National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser and handed over a letter written by Shehbaz,
In the letter, the PML-N president said that he had provided a comprehensive proposal to achieve consensus on the bills. "Unfortunately, no response was received from your side which creates doubts about your intentions," he said.
"Instead of considering our proposal to achieve consensus on the bills, late last night we received less than 16 hours notice from your office that the joint sitting of Parliament had been called to meet at 12pm today. Is this how consensus on issues of national importance is achieved?" he asked.
He said that the bills being considered today included amendments to the election laws. "We want to remind you that in the history of Pakistan, legislation regarding elections has never been done in this unilateral manner; election laws have always been made with extensive consultation and consensus with all parties in parliament," Shehbaz said.
"Your partisan conduct in handling these bills of national importance and the joint sitting removed our confidence in you as custodian of the House. We therefore demand that you take immediate action to rectify this egregious wrong before today's joint sitting is convened," he wrote.
Additional input by APP.