The following article was published in Dawn on January 24, 2015 at the following link
ELECTORAL reforms once again seem to be disappearing from the federal government’s radar. One may also claim with reasonable accuracy that reforming the electoral process was never among the top priorities of the government. This is because, despite the repeated demands after the 2013 election and knowing fully well that a number of reforms proposed by the Election Commission remained outstanding since the previous National Assembly and the PPP-led government chose to ignore them, it took no action on instituting electoral reforms for more than a year after it took office in June 2013.
It was only after the PTI-led street agitation gained momentum and a call for the ‘azadi march’ was given by Imran Khan that the prime minister sprang into action on June 10, 2014 and asked the National Assembly speaker to constitute yet another parliamentary committee on electoral reforms.
In case the government was serious about electoral reforms, a new parliamentary committee on electoral reforms was not needed. Barely a few months ago, two parliamentary committees on electoral reforms in the Senate and the National Assembly had submitted their reports after conducting a number of public hearings and holding extensive deliberations.
All the new government was required to do was to ask its Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights to draft one or more bills based on the reports of the two parliamentary committees and present them to the parliament for consideration, debate and approval. The National Assembly or the Senate, wherever the government would have chosen to introduce the bill, would then refer the bill or bills to a standing committee or a special committee and this would have expedited the reforms process.
Expediting the electoral reforms process is important because usually the best time to consider and institute electoral reforms is soon after an election when experiences are fresh in mind and the next election is far away thus precluding or at least diluting the possibility of clouding the reforms with partisan political considerations.
The government, however, went ahead and the speaker of the National Assembly constituted a 33-member parliamentary committee on electoral reforms on July 25, 2014. The committee was mandated to complete its recommendations within a period of three months — a time frame which once again did not reflect urgency on the part of the government.
Usually parliamentary committees are given a month to present a report on a piece of legislation and given the fact that so much well-researched material was already available with the new parliamentary committee, it could have completed its task within that period.
The poll reform process should not be held hostage to the politics of any one group.
The new parliamentary committee which chose the super-efficient, powerful but extremely overworked Senator Ishaq Dar as its chairman, started its business ab initio by inviting proposals from the public through newspaper advertisements and, to give the committee due credit, convened 10 meetings till October 2014. A sub-committee convened another six meetings till about mid-November. Since then the committee seemed to have almost stopped functioning as no meeting has been convened in the past two months.
The committee has already exceeded the mandated period of three months by another three months and despite this delay, there seems to be no sign of a report which parliament could receive and then begin legislating on the proposed reforms. It is true that the boycott by the PTI after it nominated three MNAs to the parliamentary committee and the resignation later of its legislators did not help the working of the committee. But the PTI maintains that it gave its written proposals to the committee and it could proceed on that basis.
Although I strongly feel that PTI should have participated in the committee proceedings and seen through the completion of its report, the process cannot and should not be held hostage to the politics of any one party or group.
There is a strong feeling, and it is justifiable, that the government only moves under strong pressure either from the street or from powerful quarters. The prime minister took more than one year to initiate the process to fill the vacant slot of the chief election commissioner and that also when the Supreme Court threatened to withdraw its judge as acting CEC.
Now that the PTI dharna has been called off after the Peshawar tragedy and no imminent street agitation is on the PTI calendar, pressure seems to have eased on the government and the ruling party and thus the lax performance of the electoral reforms committee.
An important proposed electoral reform has already become infructuous due to the slow pace of the parliamentary committee. As some reports suggest, a number of electoral reforms proposals received by the committee in response to its public invitation through newspapers asked for a constitutional amendment to not restrict the qualification of the CEC and the members of the Election Commission to judicial background. Or plainly put, a CEC does not necessarily have to be a sitting or former judge of the Supreme Court or a person who is qualified to become a judge of the Supreme Court.
Similarly a member of the Election Commission does not necessarily have to be a former judge of the high court or a person who is qualified to become one. The proposal is based on the premise that the honourable judges, with all respect to their legal acumen and wisdom, do not always have the administrative or management experience required to undertake what is essentially an administrative — and not a judicial — task, ie the holding of an election.
Had the committee completed its work and the parliament passed the necessary amendment, its application could have started with the appointment of the new CEC. But since the committee could not complete its work, the appointment had to be based on the current constitutional provisions.
A number of other important proposed reforms are awaiting consideration by the parliamentary committee and eventually parliament as a whole. Introduction of new technology in the voting process to pre-empt or thwart voter impersonation is just one of those vital electoral reforms without which the next election will be void of credibility. Is the government, the parliamentary committee and parliament waiting for another street agitation to move into action on electoral reforms?