ISLAMABAD - The Lower House of the Parliament Tuesday unanimously passed another landmark but a much-awaited legislation, the 20th Amendment Bill 2012, which would primarily give a constitutional cover to some 28 parliamentarians placed under suspension on the directives of the apex court.

The amendment will also guarantee establishment of an independent Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and appointment of a neutral chief election commissioner and impartial caretaker set-ups at the federal and provincial levels to ensure free and fair elections in the country.

The amendment also allows every political party to submit a name for the vacant reserved seats for women and minorities before the ECP, in case the previous list exhausts.

The bill, moved by Law Minister Maula Bakhsh Chandio, was passed by the house with 247 votes in favour and none in opposition through the division of seats. Under the amendment, the next caretaker set-up at the Centre would be appointed with the consensus of the leaders of the house and opposition of the outgoing National Assembly, while the same exercise is proposed for the provinces.

The amendment would also ensure five-year tenure of the five retired judges, as members of the ECP.

Under the Clause 9 of the 20th Amendment, in case the prime minister and the leader of the opposition do not agree on the caretaker premier within three days of the dissolution of the National Assembly, they shall forward two nominees each to a committee to be immediately constituted by the speaker of the National Assembly. The committee will comprise six members of the MNAs or the senators, having equal representation from the treasury and the opposition, to be nominated by the prime minister and the opposition leader respectively. The provinces will also adopt the same procedure.

The committee constituted under clause (1) or (2) shall finalise the name of the caretaker prime minister or chief minister, as the case may be, within three days of its formation. And if the committee too fails to achieve consensus, the names of the nominees shall be referred to the ECP for final decision within two days.

Earlier, the opposition parties, especially PML-N, reached a consensus on the draft of the bill after making some amendments during the time when the house remained adjourned for around two hours on the request of Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan.

Prime Minister Gilani had sought 15 minutes adjournment, saying they wanted to fine tune the draft, as there were no opposition leaders in the provincial assemblies of Sindh and Balochistan. The treasury benches agreed to amend the clauses 3 and 9 of the original draft and a new clause 2 was inserted in the bill, which has a total of 11 clauses, on the proposal of the PML-N.

In clause 9, the members of the parliamentary committee were reduced from eight to six.

When the house met after the break, Chaudhry Nisar told the lawmakers that all the parliamentary parties from both side of the divide had reached a broader consensus on major four issues after the deliberation spanning over two weeks. He said in future, no caretaker set-up could be appointed without the consensus of the leaders of the house and the opposition.

He also said the Parliament had removed all the possibilities of deadlock on the appointment of future caretaker set-up. He also appreciated the PPP-led federal government’s role for having a consensus on the landmark legislation and said the appointment of caretaker set-up in the country would no more remain in the hands of the government, ensuring free and fair polls in the country.

He also assured the house that he would not only consult the political parties sitting on the opposition benches but all those who were outside the Parliament on the nomination for the caretaker prime minister.

 “Some powers want to defame the Parliament through newspaper articles,” he said, a remark that was later endorsed by Gilani who said some forces did not want the Parliament to do work.

After the unanimous passage of the bill, Gilani congratulated the house on the earlier amendments, 18th and 19th, amendments.

He said the Parliament had dispelled the impression given by some opponents that the politicians could not sit together. “Today democracy is strengthened and everyone is united for national cause,” he added.

He said the 20th Amendment had ensured the free ECP, independent election commissioner as well as caretaker set-up to ensure fair election in the country in the future course of time.

“Now, no caretaker set-up would be imported in the country but it would be that supported by 180 million people of Pakistan,” he added.

The PM said they had suffered in the past because of lacunas in the Constitution regarding free and fair elections. He also said that they had made future planning and given a future roadmap.  He also thanked for those parliamentarians form both sides and from the Upper House of the Parliament who made efforts to pass the bill with consensus.

Speaker Fahmida Mirza said every MNA was making the history before the house was prorogued sans die.

Earlier, a special federal cabinet meeting with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in chair on Tuesday gave its approval to the draft of the 20th constitutional amendment bill agreed between the government and the Opposition.

Since the Supreme Court had questioned the legal status of 28 lawmakers who had been elected in by-elections held at a time when the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was incomplete due to non-appointment of its members as required under the 18th Amendment and suspended their membership, the amended bill is meant to provide legal cover to these legislators.

The special cabinet meeting was called to approve the consensus draft of the 20th amendment bill.

Though the bill was primarily aimed at giving legal cover to the by-poll winners, but following negotiations between the government and the Opposition both the sides agreed to insert some other sections in the draft regarding caretaker setup for holding general elections and constitution of an independent Election Commission.

They also agreed on reforms in the Election Commission such as extending the tenure of the members of ECP from two to five years and appointment of Chief Election Commissioner with the consensus of Opposition. The procedure to remove the member of the Election Commission would be same as that of the removal of the judges.

It bears mentioning here that the PPP and the PML-N reached an agreement on the amended draft last week when the government accepted all the demands of the Opposition for its passage unanimously.

According to the formula, the Leader of the House and Leader of the Opposition in National Assembly will suggest the names of members for the interim government while a six-member committee comprising three members each from the PPP and PML-N will be constituted to resolve any differences. It was decided that the same formula would be followed in the caretaker setups in the provinces, sources said, adding that the MQM’s reservations about the draft of the bill would be taken up at the special cabinet meeting.

Sources said if disagreement between Opposition leader and Prime Minister over interim setup persists and the parliamentary committee fails to reach a decision within three days, the matter would be referred to the ECP.

However, the government has also assured that it will implement the 18th Amendment in letter and spirit.