ISLAMABAD - The National Assembly on Tuesday passed ‘The Elections Bill, 2017’ aimed at bringing electoral reforms for conducting free, fair and transparent elections in the country.

Though the government ignored some amendments proposed by the opposition, a major portion of the legislation was approved unanimously.

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, at the fag-end of over five-hour proceedings, staged a token walkout from the House after the government did not incorporate some of their amendment proposals.

The PTI lawmakers were mainly demanding the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis, the appointment of the caretaker government by the Parliament and biometric identification of voters etc.

The bill, after over a three years deliberation by the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms (PRCER), was adopted in the Lower House of the Parliament in the presence of 39 lawmakers including 25 treasury benches MNAs.

The House, with a thin presence of lawmakers, incorporated nearly 40 amendments of the PPP and the JUI-F regarding the bill. The government also rejected nearly 100 amendments moved by opposition members and the JUI-F.

About the controversial matter of ‘articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution’, MQM lawmakers sought the status of these clauses. Minister for Law Zahid Hamid hinted government’s intentions of amending Articles 62 and 63.

The minister said that the constitutional amendment for fixing a time limit for the ‘disqualification of a parliamentarian’ on the basis of these articles (62, 62) would be taken to the main committee of the Parliament. Hamid said that the time limit for the disqualification of a parliamentarian should be less than five years.

The 92-page bill, moved by the law minister, contains numerous electoral reforms including delimitation of constituencies by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) after every census.

The statement of objects and reasons of the bill says the ‘ECP shall prepare an action plan six months before the elections’.

It was mentioned in the bill that citizens who have obtained CNIC from NADRA will automatically be enrolled as voters.

Taking care of long distances of the polling station, the distance between a polling station and the voters has been reduced to one-kilometer. “The nomination form has been simplified and the same has been prescribed for candidates for all seats,” it says.

It says, “the printing of papers will be based on the formula that the number of ballot papers per polling station shall be equal to the number of voters at the polling station, rounded off to the nearest hundred”.

Wealth statement to be filed by a member, it says, shall in the same form as is submitted under the income tax ordinance, 2001.

The bill further proposes that the candidates will now have 28 days instead of 21 days for running the election campaign. The votes of male and female voters will be counted separately. There will be a specific limit on the budget spent on campaigning by political parties.

“Returning officers will not have the authority to publish extra ballot papers and anyone who harms the ECP staff will have to pay a fine of Rs0.1 million or will be sent to jail for two years,” says the bill. The new legislation also binds every political party to hold intra-party elections every five years.

According to the bill, the eight laws which would be consolidated once the bill becomes Act of the Parliament include Electoral Rolls Act 1974, Delimitation of Constituencies Act 1974, Senate Election Act 1975; Representation of the People Act 1976, Election Commission Order 2002, Conduct of General Elections Order 2002, Political Parties Order 2002 and Allocation of Symbols Order 2002.

Major reforms envisaged in the bill include strengthening of the ECP, which would be fully independent and autonomous.

As per an amendment, the election commission would prepare a comprehensive action plan four months instead of six months before the election specifying all legal and administrative measures for the conduct of elections.

It would establish a transparent result management system for expeditious counting, compilation, and dissemination of the election results.

The commissioners will have full financial powers, says the bill including creating posts within its approved budgetary allocations and all the expenditure of the ECP would be charged upon the consolidated fund.

The ECP has been authorized to redress complaints and grievances during various stages of the election process (other than a challenge to the election itself under Article 225) and its decision will be appealable to the Supreme Court.

After the passage of the bill, through a resolution moved by the government, the House thanked members of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms recommending President’s Pride of Performance Award for them.   

Opposition Leader Syed Khursheed Shah, on a point of order, strongly criticized the minister’s absence in the House during the important legislation.

“This is the situation of the House as only five ministers out of 53 cabinet members are present here,” he said at the end of the proceedings.

Shah raised the issue of US President Trump’s recent policy statement.  “I am surprised to see the silence of the government on policy announced by US President Trump on Tuesday morning,” he said.  Shah said the Foreign Affairs Minister Khwaja Asif was in the House but he did not utter a single word on it.