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ISLAMABAD: A bill – The Constitution (Twenty-Sixth Amendment) Bill, 2020 – aimed at paving the way for replacing secret ballot with open ballot in the Senate elections was presented in the National Assembly on Wednesday amid uproar.

Opposition lawmakers strongly protested against the government preventing Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem from reading out bill’s contents and consequently leaving the NA speaker with no option but to call for a recess.

“The bill seeks open ballot in the Senate elections,” said the law minister, adding, “Is seeking amendment in the constitution unlawful and unconstitutional?”

Soon after the bill was introduced to the House, NA Speaker Asad Qaiser kept asking the lawmakers to discuss the constitutional amendment bill, but the opposition MPs accused him of displaying pro-government bias, saying that he did not allow them to voice their opinions.

Ahsan Iqbal of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) said he was challenging the NA speaker to affirm whether the PML-N had gotten its share of the calling-attention notices and adjournment motions taken up in the last 21/2 years.

“The chair intentionally ignores the PML-N's calling-attention notices and adjournment motions”, he said, adding, “the PML-N wanted a debate on electricity and petrol price hike, the LNG issue, and the wheat and sugar scandals.”

“I accept your challenge,” responded Qaiser, and invited Iqbal to his secretariat and verify how many notices and motions were submitted by the PML-N and subsequently taken up.

“I’ve done everything on merit,” he added.

But Iqbal kept insisting that not a single calling-attention notice had been taken up in the ongoing parliamentary year, stressing that “this is not a scrap site that can be bulldozed.”

He claimed that during the PML-N rule, opposition members were allowed to speak for hours on end.

“But here we feel like the opposition MPs are treated as personae non gratae…whenever we rise from our seats, our mics are immediately turned off,” he maintained.

Iqbal asked Qaiser to use his authority “justly”, saying the speaker did not belong to any one party, but the way “you [the speaker] are running the House, clearly shows you are biased”.

“I’m the custodian of the house, I take care of the entire house and run it as per law,” said Qaiser in response to Iqbal’s remarks, getting jeers and mocking laughter from the opposition MPs.

Refusing to back down, Iqbal then turned around and asked the opposition members present in the House to raise their hands, if they thought Qaiser was serving his position rightfully.

The loud chants of “No” reverberated through the House, to which Qaiser said: “The [opposition] members are only following Ahsan Iqbal’s instructions”. Iqbal also accused the government of targeting the opposition as part of its “revenge tactics” to make it ineffective, saying Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif, PPP leader Khursheed Shah and the opposition leader in Punjab, Hamza Shehbaz, were languishing the jails due to the same reason. He said senior leader PML-N Khawaja Asif, was subjected to consistent media criticising and character assassination, but despite this the court had sent him on a judicial remand because it was confused by the evidence presented against him.

“The NAB conducts inquiries of under-construction projects against us but an inquiry cannot be held into the Peshawar BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) project until it is complete,” he added.

Speaking about the bill, the Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs, Babar Awan, said the PTI and its coalition partners were the only parties which had made practical efforts to end the involvement of money in the Senate elections by introducing a constitutional amendment.

He said despite the Charter of Democracy (CoD) signed by their leaders, the PPP and PML-N were running away from the proposal to conduct the Senate elections through open ballot.

“People want [opposition parties] that elections be sold again, the Senate be sold again, consciences be sold again, and a vote market be set up. If this is not the case, there is only one way, and that is to have this amendment to the constitution," he said, saying that after the passage of this amendment, lawmakers will not be able to cast vote against the parties to which they belong.

Awan said another amendment the government sought to effect in Article 63(1)(c) would allow the Pakistanis holding dual nationalities to contest elections.

He said the proposed bill stated that dual nationals could not be left remedy-less by asking them to first renounce their second nationality before contesting the elections in Pakistan.

Therefore, they will be required to renounce their citizenship of the foreign country before taking the oath of office, if elected.

At the same time, Ahsan Iqbal said that PML-N strongly opposes the amendment bill, saying “we will not allow the government to bulldoze the constitution”.

Accusing the government of demonstrated, undue haste, he claimed had gotten the amendment bill passed just in 20 minutes by the relevant standing committee.

Iqbal asked Prime Minister Imran Khan why he failed to pursue the grand objective of transparency in the elections for the Senate chairman and why he thought about it only now.

"At that time horse-trading was being done from Prime Minister House [according to Imran] but now that he is afraid his own members will not vote for the PTI, he has suddenly remembered transparency,” he added.

He said the government was misleading the overseas Pakistanis because it "wants to bring dual nationals" in its ranks to the Senate.

"Legislation or amendments to Constitution cannot be done for the sake of Imran Khan’s friends," Iqbal added.

In his remarks, PPP's Raja Pervez Ashraf said the government planned to amend the Constitution with "ill-intent" and "shrewdness".

He claimed that only does the government the required numbers to effect the amendment, it was also acting highly irresponsibly".

He said the PPP had brought about the 18th Amendment by taking all stakeholders on board and using a parliamentary committee to create consensus.

"They know that they can't effect the amendment; its passage they wanted it they would have kept the environment good and talked to us," he added, referring to the treasury benches.

"How can these naive people do an amendment? They don't even understand what actually constitutes parliament,” he added.

Responding to Iqbal, Minister for Communications and Postal Services Murad Saeed said that the opposition is not allowing him to speak “because they know what I have to say.”

"Just as their leaders are thieves, so are these people," he alleged.

He said the opposition claimed the government would be forced to leave after January 31. "Well we are sitting [pretty comfortably] here today," he remarked.

Saeed said the government wants an open ballot in Senate, but the opposition wants "the Changa Manga politics".

Saeed, referring to the PML-N, said: "Their leader is sitting in London and poisoning people's ears against the state."

Speaking on the occasion, the parliamentary leader of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal Pakistan (MMAP) in National Assembly Asad Mehmud proposed to formation of a parliamentary committee to review election laws.

He said there should be no haste in matters pertaining to legislation and the NA speaker should constitute a parliamentary committee to review all the legislations pertaining to electoral reforms.

Responding to him, minister for foreign affairs Shah Mehmood Qureshi agreed to the proposal and assured a detailed review of all the pending bills.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021