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EDITORIAL: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government’s unveiling of a comprehensive plan for electoral reform has sparked off another acrimonious exchange between it and the opposition. Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry and Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan invited the opposition parties for talks on the reforms in a press conference on May 3, 2021, but in the same breath, vowed to go ahead even without the opposition’s support on the basis that it had the needed parliamentary strength to carry out most of the proposed changes to the Elections Act 2017, but needed the opposition’s support for a couple of proposed constitutional amendments. Blowing hot and cold thus, the two cabinet members could not restrain themselves from blasting the opposition’s resistance to the reforms merely for the sake of opposition. Given the straitened relationship between the government and the opposition since the PTI came to power in 2018, such mixed messaging was hardly likely to induce a change of heart in the opposition. The envisaged reforms are, by and large unexceptionable, perhaps even necessary to restore the battered credibility of the electoral process in our chequered history. They include the introduction of electronic voting machines (EVMs), changing the basis for delimitation of constituencies from population to registered voters, overseas Pakistanis being allowed to vote in elections, identifiable open ballots for the Senate polls, at least 10,000 members for the registration of a political party, all political parties to be bound to hold annual conventions, transparency and redressal mechanisms in the appointment of electoral staff and making it mandatory for elected members to take oath within 60 days. All these can in principle be carried out by a simple majority in parliament to make amendments to various clauses of the Election Act 2017. However, open identifiable ballots in Senate elections and allowing overseas Pakistanis to vote require constitutional amendments. The two cabinet ministers also committed to presenting their proposals to civil society, media platforms, bar councils, press clubs and other stakeholders to get their input on the suggested reforms.

Not surprisingly, the opposition has shot down the invitation in no uncertain manner, reflecting the state of tension and conflict between the two sides. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said there was no point to the suggested electoral reforms unless and until the establishment’s role in politics in general and elections in particular was overcome. He also scoffed at Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s offer to discuss the reforms, reminding his audience at a press conference that the PM was part of the alleged rigging in the 2018 general elections. Pointing to the unprecedented deployment of the army in that election, which made the institution’s role controversial amidst charges of rigging, Bilawal castigated the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N’s) demand to involve the army in the recount of votes in the recent NA-249 by-election in Karachi. He advised the PML-N to approach the Election Commission of Pakistan and not the military, since this could be seen as a betrayal of democratic principles for short-term expedient goals. The PML-N’s chief Nawaz Sharif reiterated his stance that the issue was not electoral reforms but respect for the vote. He pointed to the Results Transmission System (RTS) controversy in the 2018 elections to argue that the proposed introduction of EVMs would reproduce the RTS controversy unless the people’s mandate was respected by not changing victory into defeat and defeat into victory through manipulation and rigging.

The outcome of the government’s offer is hardly a surprise. The government and the opposition have locked horns since the day the PTI came to office, largely because of the so-called anti-corruption drive by the former that has seen opposition leaders in and out of prison and enmeshed in interminable cases and legal proceedings on charges of corruption that seem not to be yielding much result. This has so queered the atmosphere that parliament has been rendered virtually dysfunctional, civilised exchange between the two sides of the aisle virtually non-existent, and the descent into gutter language, invective and abuse, all of which precludes parliamentary proceedings. Having said that, and despite the unresolved controversies about the 2018 general elections and subsequent by-elections, it is perhaps wiser for the opposition to participate in and contribute to the debate about turning round our perennially contested electoral process into one that garners credibility and the acceptance of the results by all sides. After all, without a credible electoral process as the foundation, the democratic project hardly has a chance of taking off, let alone arriving at its desired destination. However, in this matter, the greater responsibility lies on the government to reverse the vitiated atmosphere and make it possible for the opposition to walk through the door it has held ajar, in the interests of forging acceptable democratic rules of the political process. We urge all opposition parties to engage with the government on the issue of electoral reforms to strengthen democracy.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021