A big step towards free and fair election

The adoption of the 20th Amendment by the National Assembly, in a late night session on Tuesday, marks the third constitutional amendment by the Pakistan People’s Party government.

To its credit, this time again it managed to bring about a partisan consensus to secure unanimous approval by an overwhelming majority of 247 votes while 228 were actually needed. The vote included 85 of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). In the 342-member house, 95 votes were missing that included those belongin to the coalition. This belies the government claim that it enjoyed twothirds majority to get the amendment approved without PML-N help.

The amendment provides for a strong Election Commission and a pre-election neutral interim set-up besides restoration of 28 lawmakers whose membership was suspended by the Supreme Court. The amendment was initially meant to validate the election of these 28 lawmakers elected during last two years in by-polls conducted by an election commission whose composition was incomplete. It was not their fault which was why all parliamentary parties were inclined to rectify the lapse. As a result the amendment was adopted unanimously after the treasury and the opposition converged to overcome some of their divergences. But the opposition did well to take advantage of the government’s compulsions and expand the scope of the amendment to strengthen election commission.

The success of government-opposition dialogue augurs well for the future of democratic order. After initial hesitation the government accommodated the opposition viewpoint recognising its logic. Interior Minister Rehman Malik has described it a sign of political maturity. But this unity has not escaped criticism that the two sides tend to agree when it impacts on their self-interest. This is what happened in the case of 18th Amendment that also protected their rights in terms of greater provincial autonomy benefiting the opposition that rules country’s most-populous province. Imran Khan says both major parties are afraid of his Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf. “They have been helping each other on crucial occasions and would again cut a deal to stem the PTI’s tsunjami,” says Khan. It is also evident they were in a hurry while more time could have been allowed to deliberate related issues by involving also the civil society and political forces out of the parliament who could have contributed to further improvement and expansion of its scope. The primary thrust of the amendment seems an abiding concern among all political forces to lay firm constitutional grounds for fair, free and impartial elections not just in the immediate future but for all times. The constitution provides for an interim structure to oversee the polls and the 18th Amendment takes extra care to leave out little on whims of either the president or the outgoing government. It has to be genuinely neutral, nonpartisan and impartial.

Objection by various opposition parties to President Asif Ali Zardari’s role in the selection of interim structure and election commission have been duly addressed by virtually reducing him to a figurehead. However, despite a lot of care taken in finalising the draft, oddities of national politics provide some interesting imponderables. For instance establishment of interim government in provinces through consultation with the opposition would be possible only in Punjab. In Balochistan the opposition has only one member who is a fugitive for security concerns. There is hardly any opposition in Sindh while in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa the JUI remains a friendly entity. The expression ‘neutral’ could have been tightly defined. Anyway, the amendment remains a significant step forward in the quest for holding fair and impartial elections.


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