The PML-N Government and its chief, Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, are not only committed to strengthening the democratic system through the parliament but are also committed quite seriously to introducing reforms in the electoral system as it was promised by the ruling party in its election manifesto that reforms would be brought about in the Election Commission.

Another political plus in this area is that all political parties have demonstrated unmatched unity on this reform agenda following which the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PCER) which comprises members from both the Treasury and Opposition benches, has completed almost 90 per cent work on the proposals received from various sectors and the remaining work is about to be finalized soon.

The said Committee and the sub-committee formed under its supervision have held threadbare deliberations and finalized all modalities, rules and regulations under which the parliamentary body would proceed to improve the existing electoral system.

As regards the recommendations of the Committee, it approved full fiscal autonomy for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and also gave a nod to constitutional amendments and amendments in electoral laws that were needed in electoral reforms package for ensuring transparency and fairness in the general elections.

The sub-committee also examined various proposals regarding six election laws namely Delimitation of Constituencies Act, 1974; Electoral Rolls Act, 1974; Political Parties Order, 2002: Allocation of Symbols Order, 2002; Election Commission Order, 2002; and partly, the Representation of Peoples Act, 1976 (RoPA). All these laws are being unified into one law.

All these laws had stood in the past in disarray and in order to make their essence and spirit clearer and effectively implementable, it was essential to unify them into one law. Now, these different laws are in the final stages of unification.

The Committee, following in the footsteps of the government’s desire to accommodate the Opposition’s point of view, has also approved the name of Arif Alvi from Opposition’s PTI as the Chairman of another sub-committee of PCER to submit proposals on voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and bio-metric verification of the voters.

In this context, the Committee has directed the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to procure electronic voting machines (EVMs) by September 2016 for experimental use with the objective of their formal deployment in the near future and thereafter.

And, as Representation of Peoples Act of 1976 (Ropa) has been impacting the entire election process since it stipulates laws related to the conducting of elections in the country, the Committee has also completed vetting of proposed changes in RoPA. And the most needed step has also been finalized and that is the Committee’s decision to give legal cover to Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP’s) powers to use contempt of court against any officials failing to comply with the Commission’s orders.

There are some other recommendations that PCER has brought forward like, for instance, it has recommended that the changes to delimitations of constituencies will be carried out on written applications from stakeholders and will be considered only on “solid grounds”. It has also been recommended that citizens turning 18 will be automatically registered as voters on getting their Computerized National Identity Cards (CNIC).

Another proposed amendment is tasking that secretary of each union council should inform NADRA and the ECP about every death in the union council so they can remove the person’s name from the voters list.

After discussion with the members of the National Assembly and the Senate from Fata and Safron, it has also been recommended that a legislative and executive council, named Fata Council, with approximately 40 members, be directly elected from the Agencies and Frontier Regions (FRs) with reserved seats for women.

The Council shall be the Electoral College for electing Senators from Fata and shall exercise all executive powers under Article 247 of the Constitution. Moreover, till the establishment of elected Fata Council, parliamentarians from Fata in the Senate and National Assembly should constitute the FATA Council and exercise executive powers under Article 247.

It is worth mentioning that not only that the ECP came up with its suggestions and recommendations, the public too showed good response to PCER’s invitation to the public to give suggestions for bringing improvement in the electoral system. PCER got a positive response and received proposals through emails, faxes and SMSs from the public. As for the ECP’s suggestions, it suggested the Reforms Committee to introduce biometric system and electronic voting machines (EVMs) in the next general elections and also recommended formal legislation on the code of conduct for next general elections.

Election Commission also presented a formal document comprising 16 recommendations before the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms with the request to convert these recommendations into a bill for legislation in the Parliament.

A proposal has also been put forth about census. It is PCER that has come up with this suggestion, asking the government to hold a fresh population census without delay (the last population census was held in 1998).

As for the details relevant to the 22nd Amendment Bill, 2016, the Bill was unanimously passed from both houses with two-third majority on eligibility criteria for appointment of Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) and members of Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms approved new eligibility criteria for appointment of CEC and members of ECP.

According to the law, prior to the 22nd Amendment Bill, only retired Judges of Supreme Court or High Court were eligible for appointment as CEC or members, respectively.

Now, after the Amendment, in addition to retired judges of Supreme Court or High Court, retired senior bureaucrats or senior civil servants and technocrats will also be eligible for appointment as CEC or a member.

In case there is no consensus between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on CEC’s appointment, each shall forward separate lists to the Parliamentary Committee for consideration which may confirm any one’s name.

A senior civil servant means a civil servant who has served for at least 20 years under federal or a provincial government and has retired in BPS-22 or above.

A person having 16 years` education and 20 years` experience would be called ‘a technocrat’. The law also fixed a maximum age limit of 68 years and 65 years for appointment as CEC and ECP members, respectively.

In order to give representation to all provinces, out of four members, one from each province shall be appointed.

Another important change relates to continuity of the Commission, whereby instead of all four members retiring together, two of the members shall retire every two and a half years. Other amendments provide that delimitation of constituencies and preparation of electoral rolls for elections to local governments shall also be the responsibility of the Election Commission of Pakistan.

It may be noted that the 22nd Amendment was brought with consensus of all political parties. All the decisions were taken with the consensus in the Committee and no one imposed his individual will.

Another change envisaged in the old laws is that the CEC was earlier appointed by the president, but after an amendment to Article 213 of the Constitution, the prime minister is now required to forward three names to the Parliamentary Committee for confirmation of one of them after consultations with the Opposition leader.

Courtesy these reforms it is now widely believed that the next general elections would be conducted in a far more transparent manner.