From streets to parliament

July 13, 2014

As the entire political discourse revolves around reforms, the government seems serious this time

From streets to parliament

E lectoral reforms dominate the political discourse these days. After the 2013 elections, all political parties, including PML-N, which won simple majority to form the government raised serious concerns over rigging in elections. Practical manifestation of these concerns came in the shape of petitions filed by different individuals and political parties with the election tribunals.

A total of 410 petitions were filed with 14 election tribunals throughout the country. Most of the petitions (99) were filed by independent candidates, followed by 66 petitions by PML-N, 58 by PTI, and 50 by PPP-P.

The legal time for deciding these petitions is 120 days after a case is referred to the tribunal. But even after over a year, 109 petitions remain undecided.

The PTI’s politics post-2013 general election revolves around the issue of rigging. To prove its claim, it has demanded to verify votes in four constituencies where its candidates, including its chairman Imran Khan, lost to PML-N candidates.

In August 2013, the government announced that it would set up a multi-party parliamentary committee to probe complaints of rigging during the 2013 elections. But no concrete step was taken to address the concerns of PTI.

To exert pressure on the government, the PTI took the issue to the streets. It has held political rallies in different cities of the country over the last few months and has already announced a long march on August 14, 2014, which would culminate in front of the Parliament House with its one-point agenda -- electoral reforms.

To keep the government under pressure, PTI also started reaching out to other political parties including PPP-P in the second week of May 2014 to garner support for its electoral reform agenda. The PPP-P announced that it would form an alliance with PTI on May 15 to bring reforms in the electoral system to check rigging in future elections.

Interestingly, PTI has not moved a bill on the issue in the National Assembly. It is obvious that no amendment in the election process can be done without the parliament. A major demand of the PTI is removal of all members of ECP. This is only possible through a constitutional amendment with a two-third majority.

In June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wrote a letter to Speaker National Assembly, asking him to constitute a special parliamentary committee, comprising members of the both houses of parliament to take up the issue of electoral reforms.

Another issue is audit of thumb impressions of votes cast, which the PML-N is not ready to accept. "We are ready to recount votes and verify records but PTI’s request for a thumb impression audit in the constituencies is not acceptable," says PML-N MNA, Dr Tariq Fazal. "The ink used by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for thumb impressions during the elections was of low quality." He says his party itself is a victim of rigging and seriously wants to reform the electoral process. "We are democratic people and believe that parliament is the only forum to address such issues."

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in a surprising move on June 10, 2014, wrote a letter to Speaker National Assembly, asking him to constitute a special parliamentary committee, comprising members of both houses of parliament to take up the issue of electoral reforms.

The mandate of the new committee would not be restricted to proposing mere electoral reforms, but would also recommend amendment to constitutional provisions relating to caretaker governments.

The Speaker National Assembly, with consultation of all political parties, has already asked parties in the parliament to nominate 33 members for the committee from both houses.

Officials at the National Assembly secretariat say, "The committee would be notified in a few days and after that it would hold its first meeting. The committee would submit its report in three months after the notification."

The number of members from political parties has been taken on the basis of their strength in the parliament while one member from each smaller party has been taken.

The mandate of the new committee, according to Tariq Fazal, also a member of the committee, would not only be restricted to proposing electoral reforms. "It will also recommend amendment to the constitutional provisions relating to caretaker governments."

The committee will also look at the findings and recommendations of the Senate Special Committee’s report on election issues, which it submitted in February 2013 and report of a sub-committee of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, relating to amendments of electoral laws which it submitted in October 2011.

"These two reports would be good starting points," says SA Iqbal Qadri, MNA of MQM and member of the committee. He was also head of the sub-committee which proposed over 40 amendments within the electoral process in October 2011.

"The committee would start working once all political parties nominate their members," he says, adding that constitution of the country has already given guidelines. "No party would be able to assert its agenda. The constitution clearly says that it is the job of the Election Commission to hold free, fair, and transparent elections."

Experts believe this time the government seems serious about real reforms. "The government was forced to form this committee. The whole political agenda in the country has been revolving around electoral reforms. It has escalated to a level where the committee would have to come up with concrete proposals and amendments," says Mudassir Rizvi, chief executive of Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN).

"Political parties, civil society organisations, and media have all developed a great deal of understanding of mechanism of elections. So, the committee would have to come up with tangible reforms," he says.

Rizvi thinks that "insulation of ECP from executive and judiciary would be the top agenda of the committee. ECP should be given authority while a process to ensure accountability of elections officers is also needed. If we get that fine mix in our electoral process, the 2018 elections would be acceptable to everybody in Pakistan."

He has his reservations over the three month cut-o`ff period. "For the first time in our history, a dialogue among political parties is going to be held on the subject of electoral reforms. We need a productive dialogue. There should be urgency over the issue but it should not be done in a hurry. This dialogue would decide the future course of our politics and the country. It needs to be discussed properly and with all stakeholders, including the civil society and media."

From streets to parliament