ISLAMABAD: The Senate adopted the 20th Constitution Amendment Bill on Monday, but not unanimously as the National Assembly had done last week.The adoption of the amendment by the upper house of parliament has cleared the way for the president to sign the bill which envisages an independent and powerful election commission, setting up of a neutral caretaker regime to hold general elections and restoration of 28 suspended lawmakers.
Two Jamaat-i-Islami senators, Prof Khurshid Ahmed and Prof Mohammad Ibrahim, voted against the amendment in the final count, thus denying the Senate the credit of passing it unanimously.
A dissident of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, Dr Safdar Abbasi, also supported the objections raised by the JI senators, but eventually he voted in line with the party policy.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani remained in the house till the passage of the bill.
The amendment has validated the election of 28 lawmakers whose membership was suspended by the Supreme Court last month because they had been elected in by-elections conducted by an incomplete Election Commission.
After the final vote held through division, Deputy Chairman of Senate Jan Mohammad Jamali announced that 74 members, seven more than the required two-third majority in the 100-member house, had voted in favour of the bill and two against it.
The JI senators opposed the bill after rejection of their proposed amendments to a number of clauses.
The session began two hours late because of a meeting of the treasury members in a committee room in which PPP members were busy in addressing "reservations" of some coalition partners.
At the outset of the session, the deputy chairman said he was giving the floor to PPP chief whip Islamuddin Sheikh because the government was still busy in negotiations with the coalition partners on the 20th Amendment.
The PPP senator announced that Prime Minister Gilani had released development funds for senators that had lapsed over the past three years. He said the government had issued a notification under which retired legislators would continue to enjoy the privileges available to the sitting lawmakers.
Some parliamentary experts termed the government's act of releasing the lapsed funds an attempt to woo the senators to get their support for the 20th Amendment.
Soon after Mr Sheikh's announcement, senators belonging to the ruling coalition entered the chamber and said they had reached an understanding on the 20th Amendment.
Sources in the government told Dawn that the senators belonging to the ANP and PML-Q were angry that the PPP did not consult them during its negotiations with the main opposition PML-N on the 20th Amendment.
Moreover, a majority of senators were against the provision which gave final authority to the chief election commissioner to nominate a caretaker prime minister in the event of failure of the government and the opposition to reach consensus.
Later, the JI senators also moved an amendment asking the government to exclude the role of ECP from the process of appointment of a caretaker set-up. They proposed that instead of the CEC, the chief justice of the Supreme Court should be asked to nominate the caretaker prime minister.
Former leader of the house Senator Raza Rabbani forcefully defended the bill and opposed the amendments moved by the JI senators.
After the bill's passage, the prime minister congratulated the senators and said it would strengthen democracy and establish people's confidence in the electoral process.
He said he and the opposition leader would not allow any other institution to intervene in the issue of the caretaker set-up.
He also asked political parties to sit together to find a solution to the Balochistan problem and said the government was ready to convene an all-parties conference or a joint session of the parliament on the issue.
It was after two weeks of haggling that the government and the opposition had joined hands in the National Assembly on Feb 14 to unanimously pass the 20th Amendment, third by the present parliament.
After the amendment, the Election Commission has now got a final say in the appointment of an interim set-up at the federal and provincial levels before general elections if politicians and a bipartisan committee of legislators fail to reach a consensus. It also prescribes five-year tenures for four members of the ECP like the chief election commissioner.
The original bill had sought only to validate by-elections to 28 seats which had been challenged in the Supreme Court.
But the new 11-caluse bill, which replaced the first two-clause draft, also specifies tenures of ECP members and incorporates a procedure for achieving a consensus between a prime minister - or a chief minister in the case of a province - and opposition leader for naming an interim prime minister or chief minister and, in the event of a difference between the two, referring the matter to a bipartisan committee whose failure to reach a consensus will send the matter to the ECP for a final decision.
The main clause about the interim set-up, which caused differences and held up the passage of the bill for several weeks, says if an outgoing prime minister and the leader of opposition fail to agree on any person to be appointed as caretaker premier within three days of the dissolution of the assembly, "they shall forward two nominees each to a committee to be immediately constituted by the speaker of the National Assembly comprising eight members of the outgoing National Assembly or the Senate, or both, having equal representation from the treasury and opposition, to be nominated by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition respectively".
A similar procedure will be followed in the provinces, with the difference that if members of the opposition in a provincial assembly are less than four, they all will be members of the committee.
In the event of a committee failing to decide the matter within three days of the referral, "the names of the nominees shall be referred to the ECP for final decision within two days".
An incumbent prime minister or chief minister will continue to hold office till the appointment of their replacements. The amendment also allows political parties to make additional nominations to their lists for parliamentary seats reserved for women and minorities if an existing list is exhausted.