ISLAMABAD: A parliamentary committee on finalising electoral reforms is no closer to completing its task than when it was formed over a year ago. Now grossly behind its deadline, election commission officials fear that if the committee does not act swiftly, there may not be enough time to effect the changes ahead of the 2018 polls.
On the eve of the combined long march on Islamabad by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Pakistan Awami Tehreek in August 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had approved the formation of a parliamentary committee which would finalise an electoral reforms package in the form of a bill.
The National Assembly speaker had subsequently notified the committee, bearing representation from all parliamentary parties, under the chair of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar with just three months to complete its tasks.
But nearly 12 months over the December 2014 deadline and 45 meetings of the committee later, there seems to have been little progress. The committee has yet to decide on revising parameters for electoral campaigns and associated fines, which have not been updated since the 1970s.
ECP bosses have aired their frustration with the encumbered process. Hundreds of proposals for reforms were handed over to a sub-committee headed by Climate Change Minister Zahid Hamid for vetting. Hamid, though, has been preoccupied with legal issues which had forced him to resign as the law minister in November last year.
For its part, the ECP complains that the body’s directives are ignored by political parties while it has been hamstrung by a paucity of funds and authority.
An example of the indifference shown by parties, who waste no opportunity to attack the poll body for less than satisfactory performance in conducting elections, was during the NA-122 and NA-154 by-elections.
Officials said that just before the NA-122 by-polls, the ECP had issued a revised code of conduct that restricted the participation of MPs in electoral campaigns. But the code was shunned by politicians, with the PTI taking the poll authority to court over it.
In the end, the body could only watch from the sidelines as PTI chief Imran Khan and PML-N MNA Hamza Shahbaz led the respective election campaigns in by-elections.
ECP officials, who recently spoke with the media, also pointed towards a shortage of funds in carrying out even their regular working. They detailed how the constitutional body has to requisition the finance ministry for the release of project funds.
In this regard, the government had been asked to allocate Rs10.8 billion for upgrading 170 ECP offices across the country.
The ECP also lacks any authority to take punitive action against code violators. This is most evident with its inability to punish MPs for not declaring their assets on time. Every member of parliament is required to declare details of their assets to the ECP three months after the fiscal year ends. But when an MP fails to do so, the most ECP can do is to temporarily bar the parliamentarian from legislative business and restoring them when any asset document is provided with no additional questions asked.
Further, the body is toothless when it comes to taking action against errant officials hired for electoral duty. Under current rules, the ECP can only approach the concerned official’s parent department with a complaint rather than take any punitive action itself.
The body requires legal cover for the nearly 1,200 changes proposed by the poll authority or other stakeholders, including incorporation of new technology such as electronic voting machines.
ECP officials warn that unless the parliamentary committee takes swift decisions on the reforms package, it may not have enough time to effectively implement the proposed changes ahead of the 2018 elections, a situation similar to the one ahead of the 2013 elections.
However, based on the parliamentary panel’s performance during 2015, it would be ambitious to expect the committee to pass a comprehensive package of reforms any time soon.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2015.