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ISLAMABAD: Amidst high drama on Friday, the ECP officials and the treasury members separately walked out of the proceedings of Senate’s parliamentary panel— as a federal minister lambasted the ECP— accusing it of taking bribes to rig polls— suggesting that institutions like the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) should be ‘set ablaze’— while the committee rejected proposed introduction of EVMs in general polls.

The Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs had a tumultuous session with the treasury members having categorically expressed their displeasure with ECP for repeatedly opposing the federal government’s efforts to launch Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs), which, the government says, aim at bringing transparency in electoral process.

“This ECP is good for nothing—it always rigged polls—it took bribes for that purpose—such institutions should be set ablaze,” Railways Minister Azam Swati said in a hard-hitting diatribe against the ECP that has come under wide public criticism for opposing introduction of EVMs.

In the same vein, the minister added, “The ECP is making mockery of government’s efforts to hold free and fair elections. It would not be allowed to undermine democracy.” The minister even suggested that ECP should be ‘disbanded’ and the Constitution should be amended to allow the government hold the general polls. “What good is this ECP for—if it cannot hold free and fair elections—or even support the government’s efforts to hold free and fair elections,” Swati remarked.

Seemingly embarrassed by the minister’s unexpected verbal offensive, the ECP officials staged a walkout from the committee proceedings.

Govt describes ECP objections on EVMs as ‘one-sided’

Advisor to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan too strongly took on the ECP. “ECP is not above the law. It has to follow the Constitution. It’s the Parliament that decides what should be in the Constitution—what should be amended and what should be the law. No one can challenge the authority of Parliament to make laws. The ECP has to simply follow the laws made by the Parliament. It is its job. It cannot question the legislation done by Parliament,” he said. “The ECP is simply shying away from its responsibility. It was the responsibility of ECP’s Information Technology wing to develop EVMs but it has miserably failed in this regard and so many years have gone past. Now, when the federal government is trying to make the electoral process transparent, ECP has problems with it. That’s totally unacceptable.”

The PM’s aide said the ECP was not in position to object to any proposed law that was under Parliament’s consideration for legislation. He asked committee chairman to expunge the word ‘objection’ related to 37 points the electoral body had raised regarding EVMs.

The chairman agreed and replaced the word ‘objections’ with ‘observations.’

“Even if we accept these so-called objections—they are a charge sheet against the ECP itself. Why did the ECP keep sleeping for years? Why didn’t it make any progress on EVMs and kept on delaying its pilot projects? If anyone is to be blamed for its failure to introduce EVMs, it is but ECP,” the advisor categorically stated. The PM’s aide said the government would provide complete financial assistance/funds to ECP regarding EVMs.

Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said a baseless propaganda has been unleashed by those opposing EVMs that the procurement of EVMs would cost 150 billion rupees. “No idea where did this figure come from,” he commented.

Later, treasury members led by Swati staged a walkout against Committee Chairman Taj Haider from Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) for not allowing newly inducted committee member Samina Mumtaz Zehri from Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) to take part in voting on EVMs through videoconferencing.

Zehri, a treasury senator, was said to be ill and could not attend the committee meeting. However, she was willing to join the committee proceedings through videoconferencing, the treasury members conveyed to the committee chairman. But the chair declined to allow her join virtually.

Next election to be held via EVMs: Shibli Faraz

After the treasury members walked out, Haider proceeded to hold voting on proposed amendments related to EVMs in the absence of treasury members. The opposition members participated in the voting to reject proposed amendments in the Elections Act 2017 [Elections (Amendment) Bill 2021] that allowed EVMs and internet-voting (i-voting – for overseas Pakistanis) in general elections.

Speaking to media after the Senate panel’s meeting, Science and Technology Minister Shibli Faraz came down hard on opposition and ECP for rejecting proposed amendments regarding EVMs and i-voting. “This (opposition’s) voting was totally one-sided in the absence of treasury members. This process had no credibility,” he said. “It was all pre-planned—the opposition is running away from free and fair polls because it would know its worth if elections are held transparently,” Faraz said.

He said the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs deliberately prolonged debate on amendments in Elections Act 2017 that continued for three days. “We want to uphold the credibility of the elections but forces of status quo are resisting it.”

The minister said the government would now use its constitutional options to get the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2021 and Elections (Second Amendment) Bill 2021 passed by the Senate. Both the bills have already been passed by the National Assembly.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

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