ISLAMABAD: As the centre and provinces struggle to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic, differences in opinion and strategy have re-energised a debate over the 18th Amendment.
The federal law minister, for one, has insisted that it has become necessary to review the amendment’s provisions and the powers it guaranteed, particularly on the subjects of health, education, and the National Finance Commission (NFC) award.
“The 18th Amendment is not holy scripture that cannot be changed,” Barrister Farogh Naseem stressed in an exclusive interview. “There is no law that cannot be amended and there are many clauses in the 18th Amendment that need to be rolled back,” he told The Express Tribune.
According to the minister, there is a pressing need for the government and opposition to discuss how the amendment can be improved. “The issues of health, education and the NFC award need to discussed in particular,” he said. “The provinces receive more resources through the NFC award which ultimately weakens the federal government. And I should point out that the Supreme Court has ruled that the country’s federal structure cannot be changed.”
When it comes to opposing any alteration to the 18th Amendment, no party has been quite as vocal as the Pakistan Peoples Party. For Naseem, PPP’s attitude towards the amendment was ‘beyond comprehension’.
“If you think about it, PPP is going against the vision of its own founding leader,” he argued. “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to strengthen the federation during his tenure. The constitution we follow was established under his regime. It did not envision Pakistan as a confederation,” Naseem said. “The 18th Amendment creates the impression that the 1973 constitution was incomplete. So really, PPP is being unfair towards its own founding leader,” he added.
Although not opposed to amending or drafting a new National Accountability Bureau Ordinance, Naseem opposed suggestions to strip the watchdog’s chairperson’s power of arrest.
“It is necessary to consult with the opposition in order to reform NAB rules,” the minister said. “But I cannot agree with the opposition demand to take away the NAB chairman’s ability to order arrests.”
“When it comes to a general FIR, is it necessary to obtain a court order before arrest? If not, then why should different rules apply to NAB?” he argued. “We do not want the law to be misused. Law and justice need to impervious to influence if we are to have true accountability.”
“At present, NAB is not working under the government. It is working as an independent body. The government believes in blind accountability and that is what the bureau is doing,” he added.
On the topic of electoral reforms, the minister said the government wants to ensure absolute transparency in elections. “We have suggested practical measures. We have formulated a strategy to put an end to horse-trading in the Senate,” Naseem revealed. “Senate elections will be held using a ‘show of hand’ policy to prevent fraud and misuse of money. If the opposition opposes this strategy, then it will be clear who is a hurdle to transparency.”
The minister also revealed plans to introduce a cut-off date for scrutiny of candidates’ election documents. “This will remove a big loophole,” he said.