This article was published in Dawn on October 11, 2017 and is available at the following link
RECENT events in the two houses of parliament in the capital have once again exposed the weaknesses of the legislative process and the lack of interest shown by most parliamentarians in an important function which bestows on them the title of ‘legislators’. At issue were the electoral reforms being debated in the form of the draft Election Act, 2017, proposed by the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) after 119 meetings held over a period of three years. It was a job for which parliament had originally allowed three months.
The 34-member committee, its 16-member subcommittee and the parliamentary staff should be commended for going through some 1,831 reform proposals and finally shaping these and other electoral reform ideas into a unified election law.
Unfortunately, despite this hard work, the Election Act, 2017, became controversial right on the day it was passed by the National Assembly earlier this month. Key parliamentary leaders, along with the speaker of the National Assembly, had to publicly accept their mistake and declare that it would be rectified by amending the law.
The question arises of how such a mistake, referred to as a ‘clerical mistake’ by the honourable speaker of the National Assembly, went undetected through the entire process extending over three years; none of the staffers or the 34 honourable members of the committee could detect it in time to rectify it before the passage of the law.
The election law became controversial right away.
All major political parties and the committee staff had signed the draft Election Act, 2017, on July 19, 2017. This draft contained the same ‘mistake’ which was acknowledged by the speaker of the National Assembly on Oct 4, 2017 but none of the signatories raised any objection.
The representatives of five political parties: the PTI, MQM, PPP, JUI-F and JI had added their notes of dissent to the final report of the PCER but none of these notes referred to the key point of contention or ‘the mistake’ which means that the honourable members of the PCER and the associated staff failed to comprehend all the amendments introduced in the old laws.
Given the long-standing position of at least two religious parties, the JUI-F and JI, on the subject, it is more likely that the honourable members of PCER and subsequently other members of parliament were unable to notice all the amendments made in the old laws. Since it was a voluminous unified document consisting of the previous eight laws and hundreds of amendments, it was not easy to keep track of each and every amendment and in the process some amendments were apparently not noticed by the members.
It is also possible that taking advantage of the complexity of the legislation someone introduced the changes without discussing these in the committee. Whatever the case, the weakness of the legislative process stands exposed. The need of the hour is to fully comprehend the possible weaknesses and correct them without any delay.
One cannot rule out the possibility of some other mistakes in the Election Act, 2017, or in some other complex legislation. Another issue is that of the language of the legislation in general and the Election Act, 2017, in particular. There is no evidence that an Urdu version of the legislation was made available to the committee members and subsequently to other members of parliament for study and better understanding.
The draft of the Election Act, 2017, was put before parliament by the PCER on July 21, 2017, and the final voting on the bill took place in the Senate on Sept 22, 2017. Getting the legislation translated in the two-month period in between and providing it to the parliamentarians was certainly doable. Although many members of parliament are comfortable reading and understanding English versions of the documents presented in parliament, a majority prefers documents in the Urdu language.
It is quite possible that the language barrier has come in the way of proper comprehension of the law. Now that the Supreme Court orders are also on record, the two houses of parliament should arrange to provide Urdu versions of bills to the politicians.
The recent controversy regarding the passage of the Election Act, 2017, highlights the urgent need to create a better awareness of the new law for parliamentarians, political party officials, election staff and the general public before the next elections take place. The Election Commission, parliament, political parties and civil society should play their due role in promoting a better understanding of the law.