ISLAMABAD: The government on Wednesday achieved a crucial victory in the parliament’s joint session as it managed to pass the Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2021, granting voting rights to overseas Pakistanis and the use of electronic voting machines.
The opposition, in protest, tore copies of the day’s agenda and walked out of the session in protest. The bill on the use of EVMs was earlier deferred at the request of Adviser to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs Babar Awan but was later put up for a vote.
Following the protest, leaders of opposition parties gathered in the chambers of the opposition leader, Shehbaz Sharif, to ponder over a future course of action.
Addressing the media out the Parliament House, Shehbaz Sharif said the day would be remembered as the “blackest day in the history of the parliament”.
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Ameer Sirajul Haq echoed Shehbaz’s sentiments and said the new laws were passed to “steal the next elections”.
He added that it was a “sad day in the history of the parliament”.
The joint session was supposed to take place on Nov 11 but was cancelled by the government much to the opposition’s chagrin after its allies expressed reservations. However, after taking all allies on board, President Arif Alvi summoned the session today at noon.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, also attended the session along with his father Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairperson of the PPP that rules Sindh.
Following the government’s victory in the parliament, Planning Minister Asad Umar took to Twitter to take a jibe at the opposition. There was a lot of noise for weeks about government’s ouster through this joint sitting but they probably forgot that “honour and disgrace are in the hands of Allah”, he wrote on his official handle.
Taking the floor, Shehbaz claimed that the session was delayed by the government as it did not have the majority to win the vote on the crucial bills.
“The nation and history will not forgive the National Assembly speaker if these bills were bulldozed today, Shehbaz said. In response, the speaker said he will not violate rules during today’s session.
Shehbaz said to prove his impartiality, the speaker should quit the PTI and the opposition “will welcome him with open arms”.
Reminding the house of the need for consensus, the opposition leader said all important legislations, including that of the National Action Plan, were achieved through consensus and agreement of all.
He also termed electronic voting machines (EVMs) “evil and vicious machines”.
“The opposition will oppose these bills at all costs.” According to Shehbaz, the parliament was in “lockdown” and bills are bulldozed during the “dark era” of PTI in the house.
There were only three meetings on electoral reforms in June, August and September on the laws proposed by the PTI, he said, adding that during the tenure of PML-N, at least 117 meetings were held on election reforms to achieve consensus.
The PTI is avoiding dialogue on these reforms because it wanted to get these ‘black laws’ passed, he reiterated.
Shehbaz further said the proposed electoral law was an attempt to prolong PTI’s rule, adding that Pakistan never had such a “fascist” regime in its history.
The opposition leader also urged the NA speaker to prorogue the joint session so that proper talks on the issue could be held.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called the day “historic” as the parliament will pass laws that will ensure that future elections are “clean and transparent”.
“Shehbaz said that the government wanted to introduce a black law. Absolutely not, the government wants to wash away the blackness of the past.”
He further said that the government had consulted opposition members to address their reservations but they “did not pay attention”.
PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, taking the floor, urged the NA speaker to run the house in a way that would not “undermine” parliament.
Bilawal said it was the first time in the history of Pakistan that a government tried to bring “unilateral” electoral reforms.
He said the government tried to bring reforms through an ordinance and now it was trying to bulldoze these reforms through today’s session.
The PPP chairperson also lauded the PML-N supreme leader, Nawaz Sharif, for achieving consensus over electoral reforms in 2017 despite holding the required majority to bulldoze the said reforms in the house.
He said the opposition will not accept the next elections if the EVM bill was approved by the government despite several reservations by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
Bilawal said if there was no way to hold electronic voting in the parliament then how could the government bring EVMs across Pakistan in mere 20 months and added that opposition parties will go to court if the bill is passed as it “violated” the Constitution of Pakistan.
The PPP chairperson further added that his party and the PML-N endorsed the ballot right for overseas Pakistanis but the PTI was still taking a solo flight in this regard.
He said PTI’s attempt to grant voting rights to overseas Pakistanis was an attempt to “dilute” the concerns of Pakistanis living in the country and there was a need for a separate electoral college for overseas Pakistanis to represent their rights in Pakistan
Bilawal also criticised the ordinance to facilitate convicted Indian spy Kulbhushan Jadhav, saying it made a mockery of the parliament.
The PPP chief also took the government to task over the deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saying the masses were facing the brunt of the “policies made on the orders of the IMF”.
He added the government wanted to bring the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) under the control of the IMF, which was akin to “tying hands of parliament” and further said the opposition will also challenge this bill in court.
Ahead of the session, Bilawal called on Shehbaz at his chambers to discuss the strategy to defeat the government that enjoys a slight majority in the House.
During the parliamentary meeting of the PTI, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared to be confident of victory.
The prime minister said the government has the required majority to get the bills passed while directing members to ensure their presence in the House.
The PM said the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis and electronic voting machines will empower the democratic process, adding that the proposed legislation favoured Pakistan, not any individuals.
Imran said the government wanted to bring laws that would end the controversy surrounding elections since the 1970s. “We want to bring a system that would make electoral results acceptable to all political parties,” he added.
After the meeting, Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the PTI lawmakers expressed their complete trust in the leadership of PM Imran.
“The government enjoys a majority in the joint session,” he said, adding that the bills will be passed with ease.
“EVMs and right of vote to overseas Pakistan are two very important pieces of legislation,” Fawad said and added that the premier was committed to getting these bills passed.
According to the minister, the PTI was the only party that favoured voting rights for expatriates.
He thanked the allies and party lawmakers who ensured their presence for the joint session despite prior commitments.
Fawad also took a dig at the opposition, saying the joint opposition was a victim of internal rifts and today’s session would act as a catalyst to exacerbate these divisions.
Meanwhile, the opposition is apprehensive of the alleged “arm-twisting” in the lead-up to the session. In a tweet, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) senator, Sherry Rehman, alleged that the government was using pressure tactics to ensure its majority in the House.
“A manufactured majority in parliament starts crippling the system. But not just the system. So much arm-twisting going on in the capital right now by the shaky “Govt” that Islamabad’s orthopaedic surgeons should be on alert.” She, however, said that the opposition was “united” against the government.
PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif also wrote a letter to NA speaker Asad Qaiser, expressing dismay that the government was not sincere about consensus on legislation.
“I had provided a comprehensive proposal to achieve consensus on the bills referred to the joint sitting of parliament; unfortunately, no response was received…which creates doubt about your intentions.”
“Instead of considering our proposal,…late last night we received less than 16 hours notice from your office that the joint sitting of parliament had been called to meet at 12pm today. Is this how consensus on issues of national importance is achieved?”.
“The bills being considered today include an amendment to the election laws; we want to remind you that in the history of Pakistan, legislation regarding elections has never been done in this unilateral manner; election laws have always been made with extensive consultation and consensus with all parties in parliament.”
The decision to summon a joint session has made the office of the speaker “controversial”, he said, adding that the “partisan conduct” of Qaiser has removed the opposition’s confidence in the office of the speaker.
“We, therefore, demand that you take action to rectify this egregious wrong before today’s joint sitting of parliament is convened,” the NA opposition leader added.
The letter was shared with the speaker by a delegation of the joint opposition that called on him ahead of the session. PPP’s Senator Sherry Rehman, Khursheed Shah; PML-N’s Ayaz Sadiq, Azam Nazir Tarrar, Saad Rafiq, Marriyum Aurangzeb; and JUI-F’s Shahida Akhtar Ali were part of the delegation
According to the data obtained from political parties, the ruling party and its allies have a total of 221 voters, including 179 MNAs and 42 senators.
The opposition, on the other hand, has a total of 219 members, including 162 MNAs and 57 senators.
Of the total 341 MNAs, one seat is vacant in the National Assembly. Of the 99 Senate members, one seat is suspended. This brings the combined total to 440 voters.
As per the government’s data, PTI has 156 MNAs and 27 senators bringing the total to 183; the MQM-P with seven MNAs and three senators makes a total of 10 votes; the BAP with five MNAs and nine senators totals 14; the PML-Q with five MNAs and one senator makes six votes; the GDA with three MNAs and a senator totals four; and one each from the JWP, AMLP and an independent brings the total to 221 from both the houses.
The opposition’s data states that the PML-N has 83 MNAs and 16 senators making total of 99; the PPP 56 MNAs and 21 senators brings the total of 77 votes; the 15 MNAs and five senators of the MMAP (JUI-F) total 20, the BNP-M with four MNAs and two senators totals six; the ANP has one MNA and two senators; Jamaat-e-Islami has one senator; the PkMAP and NP’s each have two senators and three MNAs and six senators of ex-FATA’s Dilawar Khan Group bring the total opposition votes from both the houses to 219.