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April 11, 2021

Despite boost in its numerical strength, no smooth sailing expected for govt in Senate


April 11, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Only seven government bills are pending in the Senate where the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) plans to conduct aggressive legislation after its numerical strength improved following the March election to half of the upper house.

However, despite its greater strength, the ruling coalition is not likely to enjoy smooth sailing in the Senate.

An indication of this came when a resolution sponsored by an opposition senator was recently passed, defeating the government that opposed it.

The motion related to the prices of COVID-19 vaccines being provided to the people on a commercial basis.

The development apparently dampened the official exuberance and confidence about the government now being in a somewhat comfortable position to take up the law-making of its choice in the Senate on the basis of its improved numerical position.

All the seven bills awaiting approval in the Senate have already been passed by the National Assembly. The government had earlier not forced their approval from the upper house knowing that it lacked a majority. Of the bills, the most important is the one that establishes the China Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority. The bill was introduced in the Senate on February 3, 2021.

The record shows that the other proposed legislation includes the Public Private Partnership Authority (Amendment) Bill; the Emigration (Amendment) Bill; the Control of Narcotics Substances (Second Amendment) Bill; the Cooperative Societies (Amendment) Bill; the Anti-Terrorism (Third Amendment) Bill; and the Anti-Money Laundering (Second Amendment) Bill.

Although the opposition parties gathered under the umbrella of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) are locked in a severe tussle after being split into two factions, they joined forces in passing the resolution on the price of the COVID-19 vaccines. They thus hinted at a possible future strategy where they might not be averse to cooperating with each other on an issue-by-issue basis against the government while maintaining their hostility to each other.

The opposition benches are divided into two factions, with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), the National Party and Balochistan National Party-Mengal standing on one side and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Awami National Party, some Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) senators and a few ‘independent’ members on the other.

However, if one of these two groups sides with the government, the treasury will be in a better position to clear an ordinary bill (that requires a simple majority) or even a constitutional amendment, that will need a two-thirds majority.

Given the present numerical scenario, the ruling coalition will be unable to conduct any kind of legislation single-handedly. It will be obliged to seek the support of at least one opposition faction for the purpose. Obviously, it will have to continuously fall back on its allies.

However, in a joint session of parliament, the governing coalition will be in a majority. Bills that are rejected by the Senate or the National Assembly can be placed in a joint sitting for approval. Even when the government did not have the requisite numbers in the two Houses combined, it had managed to pass nearly half a dozen bills amid a boycott by the opposition parties.

They included the bills to increase the number of judges in the Islamabad High Court, abolition of the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council and establishment of the Pakistan Medical Commission and some legislation necessitated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly called for the formation of a bipartisan parliamentary committee to push the PTI’s agenda of electoral reforms that the opposition strongly rejects. A few days ago, he asked PTI Senator Ali Zafar Shah to get in touch with all political parties that have representation in the Senate for the approval of the electoral reforms.

"We have learnt a lot from what occurred during the Senate elections. We will put a stop to malpractices and the use of money," he said.

Prior to that, he had written a letter to National Assembly Speaker Asad Qaiser asking him to form a committee on electoral reforms.

The recent Senate polls have highlighted once again the scourge of vote-buying in the prevailing non-transparent manner of conducting elections, it said.

Responding to the letter, the speaker wrote to the parliamentary leaders for the formation of a committee to oversee electoral reforms.

In the past, there was a market for buying and selling votes -- a practice that needs to be eradicated, he said.

A major sticking point in the electoral reforms that the government seeks to introduce is the use of the electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the elections. The opposition strongly dismisses the move as unacceptable and says that the EVMs will serve as another tool to manipulate the polls as was done by the ‘malfunctioning’ of the result transmission system in the 2018 parliamentary polls.

Despite the prime minister’s keenness to push his legislative agenda, especially the electoral reforms part, the opposition has cold-shouldered the speaker’s invitation requesting nominations for the parliamentary committee.

It has made clear that it will not be part of any forum in which the speaker figures. Unless the overall government-opposition relations improve -- and there seem little or no chances in the immediate future that there will be a thaw -- the present move will remain a non-starter.