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January 27, 2021

Open ballot in Senate election: Political stakeholders stick to party line

National

January 27, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Except for one, all the written synopses filed by different stakeholders in the Supreme Court to articulate their views on an open ballot in the Senate elections reflect party positions rather than an independent opinion.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), not constitutionally aligned with any political party, is the exception that has given its independent view. The ECP has opposed the government’s stand that calls for an open ballot in place of the secret vote in the upcoming election to half of the Senate. The ECP has argued that the Constitution needs to be amended to introduce open balloting. “Much like the elections for the prime minister and the president, the Senate polls fall under the Constitution. The most ordinary and natural meaning elucidated by Article 226 is that elections ‘under the constitution’ are those polls that are held by or under the authority of the Constitution. Article 226 provides only two exceptions i.e. election to the offices of prime minister and chief minister which on true construction refers to only one exception, the leader of the House.”

The Sindh government, adhering to the policy of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), opposed the open ballot proposal. Its synopsis said the federal government has filed the reference in the Supreme Court out of political expediency and therefore the question cannot be termed a "question of law". “In the circumstances, the moral suitability of the question for an opinion under the advisory jurisdiction is disputed. Our position is that for reasons of judicial propriety, the apex court should decline to offer its opinion.” The federal government’s position on the issue is clear given that it submitted the reference in the Supreme Court. The governments of KP, Punjab and Balochistan, where the PTI or its allies are in power, were not expected to take a stand different from that of the federal government. Unsurprisingly, they supported the opinion of holding the Senate elections through an open ballot. Similarly, National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaisar was unlikely to oppose the federal government being a PTI card-holder -- although his office demands independence. In his synopsis, he said constitution-making and any amendments to the Constitution are the responsibility of parliament while the Supreme Court has the right to review and refine them. “Transparent Senate elections will bring an end to horse-trading, as in the past allegations of votes being sold in return for hefty amounts have been reported frequently. We want transparent Senate polls which are only possible after the process is held through the open ballot process.” Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani too went along with the federal government’s view as his parent party is an ally of the government. “Allegations of floor-crossing, changing party loyalties and rigging were levelled following the 2015 Senate elections after which there was a debate over the polling procedure. It was suggested in the Senate's House Committee that the name of the voter should be written on the back of the ballot paper and in case of a doubt, the party chief should have the power to see the details. Transparent elections are in the larger interest of the nation. The Constitution is silent regarding Senate elections. All stakeholders agree that the Senate elections should be transparent, and the person who goes against the party policy should face consequences.” Last month, President Arif Alvi filed a reference in the Supreme Court seeking its opinion on the issue of the Senate polls being held via an open vote. It was argued that the nature of the Senate election and the way it is conducted has not been clearly mentioned in the Constitution. The reference said the Senate polls are conducted in accordance with the Elections Act, 2017 and asked if it is possible to introduce open balloting.

The government also argued that the process of 'show of hands' instead of secret balloting will bring transparency to the Senate elections, and that secret voting leads to widespread corruption among members.