This article was published in The News on July 15, 2023, at the following link
IT was somewhat surprising to see a Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) becoming active just 38 days before the National Assembly completes its five-year term, and starting deliberations on new electoral reforms.
Although it is encouraging that the committee — consisting of eight MNAs and five senators belonging to eight political parties — is seemingly discussing some of the reforms proposed by organizations like PILDAT about 22 months back to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs chaired by Senator Taj Haider, developing cross-party consensus in the current deeply polarized political environment and implementing the agreed reforms in 3-4 months could be quite challenging.
PTI Senator Ali Zafar’s inclusion in the committee is a good omen as he is not only one of the most knowledgeable and competent legislators but also enjoys the confidence of the top PTI leadership. If the PTI also becomes a part of the consensus on electoral reforms in the committee, backed by Imran Khan, it may be considered a great breakthrough and may open the clogged lines of communication between the bitterly opposed political parties. Passing a unanimous electoral reforms bill in parliament may also add a feather to the cap of the ruling PDM and PPP coalition government.
Since the PCER is meeting in camera, it is not very clear which precise reforms the committee is considering. It, however, seems that the committee may be considering 74-point electoral reforms proposals — most of which were finalized in September 2021 by the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs (SCPA) chaired by Senator Taj Haider.
At the time, the SCPA was considering “The Election Amendment Bill, 2021” and “The Election (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021” tabled by the then PTI government. The Standing Committee had developed unanimity on 64 out of 74 points. No agreement could be reached on two highly contentious proposals dealing with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) and Voting by Overseas Pakistanis.
It is quite a relief that the PCER has decided not to change the current provision of banning a political party only through the Supreme Court. Earlier, there was a proposal to authorize parliament to outlaw a political party. This â€˜reformâ€™ would have constituted a substantial change in the law pertaining to political parties with an obvious objective to target the PTI.
Apparently, increasing the spending limit for national and provincial assembliesâ€™ candidates is also being discussed. Despite inflation, this increase will be perceived as a regressive step by many who feel that contesting an election is already beyond the means of anyone except the super rich. Instead, the committee should plug the current loop hole in the Elections Act, 2017 which, unlike the previous Representation of Peoples Act, does not count the spending by persons other than the candidates in the election expenses and thus allows spending beyond the legal limit.
The committee is also reported to be considering the re-introduction of another version of the Result Transmission System (RTS) by providing smartphones and high speed internet to presiding officers.
The RTS had miserably failed in the 2018 election and one complication then experienced was that many presiding officers, especially in remote rural areas, did not know how to operate a mobile phone, especially a smartphone, to take a picture of the result count sheet and transmit it to the returning officer. It may be somewhat dangerous to introduce such a system so close to the election when procurement of smartphones and training presiding officers on their use may be challenging.
While trying to reverse some the decisions of the then CJP Saqib Nisar, the committee should not even consider eliminating the affidavit to be submitted by each candidate along with nomination forms containing information about a candidateâ€™s income, tax, travel, education etc — which is very important for voters to know their candidates.
At this time, the ECP and other authorities should be focusing on faithful implementation of the laws already in place rather than contemplating writing new laws. Our major challenge is enforcement of laws which already exist rather than adding new laws to the statute-books.