ISLAMABAD: Although the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) seem to be divided over the government’s proposal to hold the Senate elections through an open vote, the two parties are found to be united in criticising the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) for making its proposed electoral reforms public through the media.
The leaders of the opposition parties also questioned the mandate of the parliamentary committee which, according to them, had actually been constituted to investigate the charges of rigging in the July 2018 general elections.
Speaking at a news conference last week, Minister for Education Shafqat Mahmood and Minister for Narcotics Control Azam Swati had announced a number of proposed changes to the Constitution and laws to reform the electoral process with the main suggestion of holding the Senate elections through an open vote instead of the current method of secret balloting.
According to them, the proposals had already been placed before the federal cabinet for approval after which these would be presented before parliament in the form of bills.
The two ministers were members of a special parliamentary committee constituted by National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser in October 2018 on the opposition’s demand to probe charges of rigging in the elections held in July that year. The committee, however, failed to complete its task for a number of reasons, forcing the opposition parties to finally announce its boycott of the committee in June last year. The committee and a couple of sub-committees, however, continued to function and prepared recommendations to introduce electoral reforms.
The ministers had stated that the efforts would be made for evolving a broad-based consensus among all political parties on electoral reforms.
The government has proposed changes to laws at a time when the Senate elections are about eight months away. The purpose of conducting the Senate elections through an open vote, according to the PTI, is to end horse-trading and the use of money in the process.
When contacted, PML-N parliamentary leader in the Senate Mushahidullah Khan doubted the intentions of the government and questioned the mandate of the parliamentary committee which had proposed the electoral reforms.
He said the people in the government were “inexperienced and incapable” and they did not know as to how the important and sensitive matters such as electoral reforms should be handled. Mr Khan said that instead of going to the media, the government should have taken the opposition into confidence, if it was sincere in reforming the electoral process.
The PML-N senator alleged that people in the PTI always tried to take credit of the things through the media by making announcements and holding news conferences, but they failed to implement their plans due to their “incompetence”.
He, however, supported the proposal for holding the Senate elections through an open vote. He said he believed that keeping in view the past Senate elections, it was the need of the hour to take steps to end horse-trading and use of money in the elections.
Mr Khan said such a process would not only bring transparency, but also enhance the prestige of the Senate. Moreover, he said, the open Senate elections would end the use of money and genuine and poor workers of the party would also get an opportunity to reach the parliament and serve their parties and the nation. He, however, made it clear that these were his personal views and the party would come out with its formal stance once the issue was discussed internally.
PPP vice president and parliamentary leader in the Senate Sherry Rehman told Dawn that they had only heard about these proposed “reforms” through the media.
“There has been no consultation or discussion about Senate or general electoral reforms that we have all done extensive work on together,” she said, adding that “none of us have seen any draft of the proposal, nor has there been any kind of discussion at the parliamentary level where we all just met”.
She said it was odd that the party whose prime minister never came to the Senate, as they preferred rule by presidential ordinances, now suddenly wanted reforms in how the Senate was elected.
“If the government is serious about making the electoral process meaningful and parliament not a rubber stamp for its decisions, it should address issue like electoral fraud too,” Ms Rehman said.
“We were repeatedly told that a committee will examine this, but like most things launched with fanfare by this government, it has become like the Covid fund: never to see the light of transparency and to be used to fill gaps in its own mismanagement,” she added.
The PPP senator said these kinds of constitutional amendments were discussed as part of a broader reform dialogue in the past too. In the last meeting on electoral reforms, she recalled, while they did support transparency of the process, many members had opposed the open vote as controversial because it affected the principle of voting without fear or favour.
“Had we seen the actual draft we would have looked at options to reduce horse-trading because that is a practice we should not ignore, but this high-handed unilateral floating of policy reforms is not done. This is why all their legislative initiatives are stuck,” Ms Rehman said.
PPP information secretary Dr Nafisa Shah, while talking to Dawn, said it was ironic that the party that had put a lockdown on the parliament, delegated legislation to presidential palace, and had undermined the upper house of parliament now wanted reforms in Senate vote.
“Why just Senate election reforms? Electoral reforms need to be discussed. Open vote is equally controversial as it affects the principle of vote of conscience and vote without fear or favour,” she said.