ISLAMABAD: Both the government and opposition parties are consuming all their energies by repeating ad nauseam their stands for and against the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the next general elections but are loath to sit under one roof to sort out their differences.
The government is pushing for EVMs to be used in the future parliamentary polls come what may and is running a forceful public campaign in favour. On the other side, the opposition keeps dismissing the idea with equal vehemence. The war of words continues unabated without any meaningful outcome.
The government is giving demonstrations of the EVM to everyone except the opposition to prove that the equipment is dependent, reliable and trouble-free, and will ensure fair, free and transparent polls. Prime Minister Imran Khan and President Dr Arif Alvi have got innumerable briefings on the EVM. The functions of the apparatus have been shown to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), which, however, has still not taken any conclusive decision on it.
Science and Technology Minister Shibli Faraz has written a letter to the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) and the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat), requesting them to inspect the EVMs. But no such effort was made to take the most important stakeholder, the opposition, on board on the attempt to introduce a major technology for the first time.
Three parliamentary forums – the parliamentary consultation committee on legislative business (PCCLB) led by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak, the Senate standing committee on parliamentary affairs headed by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Taj Haider and the parliamentary committee on legislative business (PCLB) chaired by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi – have not been activated to evolve a consensus on the EVMs and overall electoral reforms contained in the multiple amendments in the Elections Act, 2017.
The PCCLB and PCLB constituted by Speaker Asad Qaiser, co-opting the members of all the parliamentary parties, have not held even a single meeting since their formation a long time ago. The Senate standing committee did convene a brief session but did not touch on the most contentious issue of the EVMs. Except for these three bodies, there is no other platform available to the two principal parliamentary players to put their heads together.
“The government’s offers for talks on electoral reforms, including the EVMs, are confined to newspaper statements by cabinet members only,” former Speaker and prominent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) leader Sardar Ayaz Sadiq told The News when contacted. “No one from the opposition has been approached to open parleys.”
He said that of the168 democracies in the world, EVMs were being used only in two countries – India and Brazil – which spent decades in testing and experimenting the machines before finally using them. In several countries, the EVMs were operated in the elections but discarded due to secrecy and transparency issues, he said. “We in Pakistan want to have the equipment for the entire general polls without the necessary trials to judge their efficacy, function and operation.”
On the opposition’s call, the speaker had formed the PCCLB so that the government and opposition have a readily available body where they can consult with each other on the overall legislative agenda of the treasury before it is tabled it in parliament.
“In the past, we used to discuss the proposed bills with the then opposition. The result was that the government would accept certain amendments suggested by the opposition. Consequently, legislation was done smoothly,” Ayaz Sadiq said and added that he had recommended to the speaker that a committee should be constituted for the purpose. “Asad Qaiser accepted my proposal, but the PCCLB has never met for consultations on the law-making agenda, and the exercise of its formation has turned out to be futile.”
After the government bulldozed 29 bills in two days – June 7 and 10 this year – through the National Assembly, the speaker had set up the PCLB, after negotiations with the opposition, but it has also not been convened even once.
Among the 29 bills, 75 amendments in the Elections Act were most important and passed by the Lower House of Parliament. It had been informally agreed between the two sides that the differences on these changes, including the use of the EVMs, would be thrashed out in the Senate standing committee, but it too has not held a single worthwhile session so far.
The EVMs can’t be used in the elections unless they have a legal cover, which is possible only through an amendment in the Elections Act. Apart from the opposition parties, a major task for the government is to fully satisfy the ECP as well because without its consent the equipment cannot be introduced in the elections.