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ECP alarmed at 28 clauses of electoral reforms bill

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has expressed serious concerns over some clauses of the electoral reforms bill passed by the National Assembly, including voting rights for overseas Pakistanis and use of electronic voting machines (EVMs), and has assessed that many proposed amendments may violate constitutional requirements.

Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja presided over a meeting of the ECP on Tuesday, which reviewed the amendments on which the commission has serious reservations. The commission said it had already submitted its response to the relevant parliamentary committee but regretfully it was not included in the bill. The ECP has recorded these concerns and comments with its rationale in a detailed document — available with Dawn — that compares the original clauses of the Election Act 2017 with the amendments proposed by the government in the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2020 that has been passed by the National Assembly and requires to be passed by the Senate before it becomes law. A press release issued by the ECP on Tuesday listed some of the concerns that the Commission discussed in the meeting.

Dawn has access to the details of these objections as listed out in the comprehensive document, along with the reasons for the objections.

The ECP fears that the proposed amendments will dilute its constitutional powers and shift them to the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) which is part of the federal government and not an independent body like the ECP.

The document is a compilation of internal ECP assessments. A few of these concerns are procedural in nature, but the graver ones pertain to the dilution of the ECP’s constitutional powers and also raise disturbing questions about the management of elections and the possible adverse impact on settled constitutional structures. The extent of the ECP’s concern over the new electoral reforms bill can be gauged from the fact that it has stated in this document that it does not support 28 of the total 62 proposed amendments.

Commission fears amendments will dilute its constitutional powers and shift them to Nadra

The bill has been cleared by the committee – that included members of the opposition many of whom were absent when the bill was approved – as well as the National Assembly, but it can be challenged in the court of law.

“The Election Commission will not allow any dilution of its constitutional structure as an independent body,” says Kanwar Dilshad, former secretary of the ECP.

The following are noteworthy concerns of the ECP:

The Commission says right of vote to overseas Pakistanis cannot be given till the required legislation is done by the parliament regarding various practical aspects, including whether they should have extra seats in the assembly and what kind of procedure should be adopted for them to vote etc.

The ECP says use of EVMs cannot be adopted until it is determined whether these machines are capable of conducting free and fair elections; whether they can operate in conditions of hot weather, loadshedding etc; how the accuracy, secrecy and transparency of votes can be ensured; and whether without proper testing the ECP can ensure free and fair elections with these machines

The ECP says it cannot support the amendment that requires delimitation of constituencies to be done based on numbers of voters instead of on population as is done till now. It says this is not only against Article 51 (5) of the Constitution, it may also result in enhancement of seats in the urban areas due to temporary address of voters of such areas where they reside temporarily. It also raises another problem with grave repercussions for the federation when it says through such an amendment, the population of under 18 years may not be represented as 18 years of age is essential for voter registration whereas one of the main components of resource distribution is population.

The ECP says it cannot support the amendment which says some sections of the original act be omitted leading to the responsibility of preparing electoral rolls being taken away from Commission and handed over to the Nadra which works under the administrative control of the federal government. The implication is that the preparation of the final electoral rolls will then be under the control of an organisation that reports to the executive and is not independent and impartial like the ECP.

The Commission also rejects the amendment which changes the present practice in which the Nadra sends data to the ECP for registration of a National Identity Card holder as a voter, and proposes that the electoral roll will be the same as registration ID data of the Nadra. The ECP says this amendment will lead to the shifting of power of registration of voters to the Nadra though this is an exclusive power of the ECP under Article 219 of the Constitution.

The ECP says the proposed amendment seeks to give the right of correction in the electoral roll to the Nadra by taking it away from the ECP which is mandated by the constitution to make any correction in the rolls.

The ECP says it cannot support the amendment that states that the order of priority of candidates for reserved seats submitted by political parties can be changed within three days after the elections. It says this will make it impossible for the Commission to declare results 14 days after the polling day as required by Article 224 of the Constitution. The ECP also raises an important point when it says that when a voter casts his vote during a general election, his polled vote has a direct and indirect implication. The direct result of the vote is obtained immediately in the form of the success of his candidate but the indirect result is actually instrumental in determination of result on reserved seats on the basis of proportional representation. The implication is that if the list of reserved seats is changed after the election, it will not reflect the indirect implication of the voter’s choice.

The ECP also disagrees with the amendment that proposes that enlistment of a political party should include a list of at least 10,000 members instead of the 2,000 required presently. It says parties from smaller provinces and those working in less populated areas may not be able to get these numbers and this would discriminate against them whereas freedom of association should be encouraged.

The ECP also does not support the amendment that says the clause about disqualification under Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution should have an added explanation stating that the cut-off date for this purpose will be the date of scrutiny and that this provision will take effect from Oct 2, 2017. The ECP says a statutory provision cannot regulate a constitutional provision.

According to sources, the ECP was not taken into confidence while drafting the bill which is why it has now raised objections which it feels will be detrimental to the holding of free, fair, transparent and credible elections. The opposition has also voiced objections to the bill and is expected to challenge it by proposing amendments on the floor of the National Assembly. It will also attempt to block its passage in the Senate. It is evident that the opposition members were part of the committee that passed the bill. However, many opposition members were absent during the proceedings which enabled the government to have the bill passed.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2021

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