Senate approves bills seeking election reforms and amendments to NAB laws

Published May 27, 2022
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi speaks during the Senate session on Friday. — DawnNewsTV
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi speaks during the Senate session on Friday. — DawnNewsTV

The Senate passed two crucial bills, the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 and the National Accountability (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 on Friday, a day after they sailed through the National Assembly.

The bills that were passed by the lower house yesterday sought to reverse changes made in the election laws by the previous PTI government regarding the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and i-voting for overseas Pakistanis and clipping the vast powers of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

Today, they were presented by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Murtaza Javed Abbasi and Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, respectively, in the Senate.

The bills were presented amid talks about the possibility of early elections in the country and a day after PTI chairman Imran Khan abruptly ended his long march by giving a six-day deadline to the government to announce the election date.

After their approval from both houses, only the president's assent is required for them to become law.

When Abbasi presented the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 amid chants of "no, no" from the opposition, Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani asked whether the bill should be sent to the relevant committee.

Tarar replied that the committee had already approved the bill. He clarified that overseas Pakistanis had not been deprived of their right to vote.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had been asked to ensure voting rights while assuring secrecy, he told the upper house of parliament.

"The ECP said we will not be able to conduct elections [using electronic voting machines]. The Election Commission should ensure overseas Pakistanis can vote."

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Dr Shahzad Waseem, said the opposition would not allow anyone to "rob" overseas Pakistanis of their right to vote or compromise on the use of EVMs.

At this point, Tarar noted that former science minister Senator Shibli Faraz and former railways minister Azam Swati were part of the Senate panel that had approved the bill.

However, Faraz said the government was trying to give the impression that the bill was acceptable to him, which was based on "mala fide intentions".

"Votes were equal in the committee [meeting] during which the bill was considered," he said and added that the Election Commission's objections were "just a piece of paper that has no value".

Following Faraz's response, the opposition members started sloganeering again.

Subsequently, the Senate chairman asked whether the bill should be sent to the committee but the majority of the members answered in the negative.

Thereafter, the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 was passed by the Senate.

The Senate session once again witnessed shouting as opposition members chanted slogans of "imported government" and "no to NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance)".

Later during the session, Tarar presented the National Accountability (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 which was also passed.

The session was adjourned till 4pm on Monday.

Election laws

Under the amendment to Section 94 of the Election Act of 2017, the ECP may conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis in by-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility of such voting and shall share the results with the government, which shall, within 15 days from the commencement of a session of a house after the receipt of the report, lay the same before both houses of parliament.

Under the amendment to Section 103 of the Election Act, the ECP may conduct pilot projects to utilise EVMs and the biometric verification system in by-elections.

NAB law

According to the bill seeking an amendment to NAB Ordinance 1999, incumbent NAB chairman retired Justice Javed Iqbal would not be able to continue in the office as it has removed the clause inserted by the previous government granting extension to him until the time of the appointment of his successor.

The bill has suggested that NAB's deputy chairman, to be appointed by the federal government, would become the acting chairman of the bureau following the completion of the tenure of the chairman.

The bill has also reduced the four-year term of the NAB chairman and the bureau's prosecutor general to three years.

After approval of the law, NAB will not be able to act on federal, provincial or local tax matters. Moreover, the regulatory bodies functioning in the country have also been placed out of NAB's domain.

The provisions of the law shall also not be applicable on the "decisions of federal or provincial cabinet, their committees or sub-committees, Council of Common Interests (CCI), National Economic Council (NEC), National Finance Commission (NFC), Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec), Central Development Working Party (CDWP), the State Bank of Pakistan and such other bodies except where the holder of the public office has received a monetary gain as a result of such decision".

The law will not be applicable on "procedural lapses in performance of any public or government work or function, project or scheme, unless there is evidence to prove that a holder of public office or any other person acting on his behalf has been conferred or has received any monetary or other material benefit from that particular public or government work or function whether directly or indirectly on account of such procedural lapses, which the said recipient otherwise received".

Through the bill, NAB officials have been barred from making any public statement before filing references and during the investigation. In case of a violation, they will have to face imprisonment of up to one year with a fine of one million rupees.

The bill has also suggested punishment for filing a false reference which can be up to five-year imprisonment.

The new law has also set a three-year term for the judges of the accountability courts. It will also make it binding upon the courts to decide a case within one year. Under the proposed law, it has been made binding upon NAB to ensure the availability of evidence against an accused prior to his or her arrest.

Moreover, NAB will be required to begin an investigation on a complaint within six months and present an arrested person before an accountability court within 24 hours. The bill has also deprived NAB of its power to keep an accused on a 90-day remand and the period has now been reduced to 14 days.

It further says the process of the NAB chairman's appointment will start two months prior to the completion of his term and will be completed in 45 days. After the passage of the law, the power to appoint the NAB chairman will now rest with the "federal government" instead of the president.

In case of a lack of consensus between the prime minister and the opposition leader on the name of the NAB chairman, the matter will be referred to a parliamentary committee to be constituted by the National Assembly speaker, which will be bound to finalise the name within a month. The members of the Senate will also have representation in the committee.

According to one of the key amendments, the act "shall be deemed to have taken effect on and from the commencement of the National Accountability Ordinance 1999".

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