Political consensus is imperative for electoral reforms: PILDAT Panel Discussion

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In a PILDAT Panel Discussion on Electoral Reforms in Pakistan held on July 2, panellists and participants highlighted the need for detailed analysis of proposed electoral reforms. Striving for and achieving political consensus on electoral reforms is imperative, it was said at the panel discussion.

Senator Taj Haider, Chairperson, Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs, Ms. Nafisa Shah, MNA PPP and Mr. Zahid Hamid, Former Federal Minister and Former Member Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (2014-2017) joined the panel discussion which began by a re-cap of the PILDAT Course by Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT. The Panel Discussion was moderated by Ms. Aasiya Riaz, Joint Director.

Speaking at the discussion, Senator Taj Haider said that the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2021 and Elections (2nd Amendment) Act, 2021 have been passed by the National Assembly and are now in the Senate and have been referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Parliamentary Affairs. Due to lack of availability of committee rooms, a proper and consistent discussion on the acts has remained pending. The committee will invite expert views, including from PILDAT. While the members will discuss the bills, key questions before the committee are whether amendments to the Elections act, 2017 are needed and what are those crucial amendments. A political consensus amongst all political parties represented in the committee is required.

Sharing the perspectives of his party, Senator Taj Haider said that the party believes that the failure of the results transmission system (RTS) was just a hoax. Agents of political parties were forced outside polling stations during counting of results. He said election results can be easily communicated through mobile phones and the PPP has considered deleting references to the use of RTS. In terms of facilitating voting for overseas Pakistanis, he said that his party believes that we need to consider not just the voting rights of the overseas Pakistanis, but how their representation in the electoral process can be ensured and made more inclusive.

Putting forward the PML-N’s viewpoints on the electoral reforms bills under discussion at the Senate, Mr. Zahid Hamid said that the two bills were presented in the National Assembly without any prior discussion or meetings with all the political parties. The issue of granting voting rights to Overseas Pakistanis was also never discussed. Leader of the opposition, Mr. Shahbaz Sharif has already requested Chief Election Commissioner to invite all political parties to have an informed discussion on the two amendment acts.

Mr. Zahid Hamid said that the Elections Act, 2017 was the outcome of one of the most extensive, detailed and consultative processes in the parliamentary history by the PML-N during which the Parliamentary committee on Electoral Reforms headed by Senator Ishaq Dar and its sub-committees held a total of 125 meetings over a 3 years period from July 2014 to July 2017. The main committee held 26 meetings, the sub-committee chaired by Mr. Hamid himself held 94 meetings and another committee headed by Dr. Arif Alvi held 5 or more meetings. This participatory and inclusive process is in stark contrast to the government’s unilateral actions thus far, said Mr. Hamid. Voting by overseas Pakistanis and the use of electronic voting machines in the 2018 general election was considered by the committee. However, by the time the draft elections bill was being finalised in 2017, it was clear that neither the internet voting system, nor the EVMs could be used for the 2018 general election. Accordingly section 93 was drafted to empower the ECP to conduct pilot projects for voting by Overseas Pakistanis and utilizing of EVMs through biometric verification system in bye-elections to check the efficacy, secrecy, security and financial feasibility and to share the results with the government of this pilot.

Mr. Hamid said that as far as the voting by overseas Pakistanis is concerned, the present government first amended the section 94 of the Elections Amendment bill, by providing the full mandate to the ECP to facilitate the overseas Pakistanis in exercising their voting rights. He said that the government amended the same section again through the second ordinance according to which the ECP, with technical assistance, NADRA and other authorities and agencies shall enable the overseas Pakistanis to exercise their right to vote during the upcoming general election. The PML-N opposes the amendments for 3 main reasons:

  1. Omission of the reference to the Parliament is unacceptable to the party, not because of the lack of confidence in the Parliament, but because it is the Parliament’s responsibility to pass the two amendments for granting voting rights to overseas Pakistanis, indicating details of the voting system and the detailed procedure for that voting just as it is done for the resident Pakistanis.
  2. Omissions of references to pilot project and consideration to technical efficacy etc are disastrous, because in the bye-elections these things are an absolute necessity due to which the trials held so far had not been successful. The ECP pilot project on I-Voting in 35 bye-elections in October 2018 encountered numerous issues in the I-Voting system. Therefore, the PML-N recommends that more pilot exercises should be carried out in future bye-elections.
  3. NADRA’s present system of internet voting is not up to the mark and international standard as mentioned by Dr. Satti and the Internet voting task force (IVTF) headed by him in 2018 identified multiple failures, problems in the system in April 2018 and recommended multiple large scale mock trials.

The PML-N supports the right to vote by the overseas Pakistanis, but any procedure opted by the government for overseas Pakistanis must be first laid out in the Parliament after consensus of all political parties on the basis of the report of the findings of the pilot testing conducted and the considerations to the secrecy, security, technical efficacy aspects. Mr. Hamid also said that the PML-N would like the contribution made by the overseas Pakistanis to be acknowledged by giving them representation in the Parliament through allotting them special reservation seats.

Mr. Hamid said that amendments of the government on the EVMs is also being opposed by the PML-N because the previous trials of EVMs were unsuccessful and the reports of their unsuccessful pilot trials were presented before the ECP. The cost of maintenance of EVMs is high, there are security concerns and logistical problems. There is no safeguard of ballot secrecy either. The decision to have EVMs require consensus of political parties. The ECP is an independent body and it cannot be directed by the government to launch EVMs without any political consensus from political parties and pilot testing.

Mr. Hamid also said that government has also changed the basis of delimitation of the constituencies based on registered voters instead of population. The PML-N strongly opposes that based on the article 51(5) of the constitution that directs that seats to the National Assembly and Provincial Assembly will be allocated based on the population. Delimitation of constituencies on the basis of voters will cause disparities as it will be skewed towards over-populated urban areas.

Mr. Hamid said that there is another constitutional violation by the government which is related to the Senate election, which were proposed to be held through open ballot. Mr. Hamid said that the Prime Minster Imran Khan in his budget speech favoured the use of EVMs to tackle the post-poll rigging, which as per the PML-N RTS is already doing at the negligible cost. He said that after the RTS failure in election 2018 and the throwing out of the Polling agents from the polling stations, the issues were never resolved by the then made inquiry committee. He proposed that it is essential that the RTS remains under the exclusive control of the ECP. Surveillance cameras should be installed at polling stations. Security officers from security agencies should be posted outside the polling stations. He also said that the need of the hour is that electoral reforms should be undertaken by political consensus, to not only restore the confidence of all political parties, but also the public. The PML-N empowered the ECP in 2017 under the Elections Act, 2017, because we wanted the ECP to be totally independent.

Participants included  Senator Nuzhat Sadiq, PML-N, Senator Musadik Malik, PML-N, Ms. Shaza Fatima Khawaja, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Haider Zaman Qureshi, PPP, Dr. Nafisa Shah, MNA, PPP, Mr. Ahmed Karim Kundi, MPA, PPP, Ms. Shaista Pervaiz, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Bilal Azhar Kayani, Assistant Secretary General, PML-N, Mr. Attaullah Tarar, Deputy Secretary General, PML-N, Dr. Afnan Ullah Khan, Senator, PML-N, Mr. Ali Pervaiz Malik, MNA, PML-N, Mr. Shahid Hamid, lawyer and Ex-Governor of Punjab, Dr. Talat Anwar, Secretary Economic Affairs PTI, Mr. Mussadiq Ghumman, Central Joint Secretary, PTI, Ms. Shunila Ruth, MNA, PTI, Dr. Abdullah Riar, Secretary PTI, Overseas, Mr. Ayub Malik, President Punjab, National Party (NP), Mir. Jan Muhammad Buledi, Secretary General (NP), Mr. Raja Arif Sultan, Member Jamat-i-Islami Pakistan (JIP), Mr. Rasal Khan Babar, Member JIP, Mr. Zahid Akhtar Baloch, Member JIP and Mr. Rauf Mengal, Former MNA, Balochistan National Party – Mengal (BNP-M).

The exclusive delegation from the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) also joined including Mr. Muhammad Khizer Aziz, Director General (IT Operations), ECP, Mr. Nadeem Qasim, Director/Financial Analyst (Political Finance), ECP and Mr. Saeed Gul, Joint Provincial Election Commissioner, ECP.

Other registered participants for the course included: Ms. Mehmal Sarfraz, Neo TV, Ms. Benazir Shah, Newsweek Pakistan, Mr. Farrukh Ptafi from PTV, Ms. Dilarde Teilane and Ms. Sadia Ainuddin from the Delegation of European Union to Pakistan, Mr. Qasim Janjua, Election Team Lead, UNDP Pakistan, Ms. Muneeza Mirza, Assistant Professor from the Department of Political Science, FC College Lahore, Ms. Nazia Ikram, lawyer, Mr. Waleed Yawer, Research Associate at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), Dr. Taha Ali, Assistant Professor, National University of Sciences & Technology (NUST) alongside other NUST academic faculty members including Ms. Maryem Usmani, Mr. Anand Kumar, Ms. Hina Bint-e-Haq, and Dr. Idrees Khawaja from Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

Earlier, Mr. Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President PILDAT presented an overview of the PILDAT Course on Demystifying Electoral Reforms in Pakistan that was held from June 29-30, 2021.


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