Bipartisan parliamentary panel signs draft bill for approval in parliament
ISLAMABAD .: The much-awaited electoral reforms aimed at reforming the archaic system to conduct general elections in the country by bringing in changes to the existing laws is finally ready for legislation.
Members of a bipartisan parliamentary panel that drafted the bill after two-and-a-half years of work, after signing it on Friday cleared the way for its formal approval by parliament.
The draft bill, called ‘Elections Bill 2017’ having 15 chapters, proposes a clutch of new measures that include: more financial and administrative autonomy to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), setting up of a modern, result-management system, enhancing the limit on expenses incurred on election campaigns, limiting the role of caretaker governments, re-election in constituencies where women will be barred from casting their votes.
The proposed legislative framework has also kept room open for the use of electronic and biometric verification machines and the right of vote to overseas Pakistanis – but as pilot projects.
For the first time, a serious effort has been made to encourage women participation in the voting process and their participation in elections on directly contested seats.
Formed in August 2014, the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms having representation from all political parties that have representation in parliament was supposed to complete its work within three months.
After dozens of meetings and lots of political hobnobbing, it has now managed to bring all the laws related to elections in a unified draft.
The Elections Bill, 2017 has amalgamated eight existing laws into a bill. Divided into 15 chapters and with 241 sections, the proposed draft carries many changes in the existing laws and proposed various new ones.
The government has promised to table the package for final vote before both the houses of parliament separately in yet to be summoned sessions.
More powers to ECP
The proposed bill gives more administrative, financial autonomy and judicial powers to the Election Commission of Pakistan.
The ECP would have full control of all government servants it would be hiring for election duties. It would be empowered to make rules on its own without approval of the president.
Its powers will be on a par with high courts. The Supreme Court would hear appeals against the commission’s decisions.
The ECP would delimit constituencies after every population headcount. It would prepare and make public comprehensive election plan six months before general elections.
It would notify appointment of returning officers who would supervise polls, at least sixty days before polling day, make public polling scheme including list of polling stations in a constituency 30 days before polls. As far as practicable, distance between a polling station and voters assigned to it, should not exceed one kilometre. A legal provision has been kept to install surveillance cameras in highly-sensitive polling stations.
The new law ascribes simplified application forms known as nomination forms. The same form will be prescribed for candidates for all seats.
To discourage non-serious contenders, the new law has proposed candidature fee of Rs20,000 for every contestant of the National Assembly, provincial assemblies and the Senate.
To bar returning officers indulging in unnecessary and irrelevant questions during scrutiny of nomination papers, the ECP would direct them to confine themselves to queries which would be relevant to tangible material on record.
A new session has been proposed under which in case of any default on payment of taxes, loans, utility bills or other government dues, candidates will be allowed to clear default at the time of scrutiny. The provision would facilitate defaulters and tax evaders to remain in the election race which would likely draw severe criticism.
Counting and result compilation
Once counting of votes is completed at a polling station, presiding officers and representatives of candidates would sign result sheets and ballot counts.
It has been made mandatory for presiding officers to provide a copy of those documents to every candidate or their representative and send a copy to the RO to consolidate the results.
The RO will immediately prepare a provisional result but finalise the consolidated result within three days of the polling day.
In case the victory margin between a winner and his runners-up will be less than five per cent of the total votes polled or 10,000 votes, whichever is less, the RO will do recounting of all the votes on the request of contesting candidates before commencing consolidation of the results. The ECP would notify winners within 14 days of the polling day.
Vote tie to entail both candidates as winners
A new provision has been kept in the proposed laws which says in case of equality of votes between two candidates, both will be declared winners and each of them will become member of the assembly for half term. The candidate who will be member first, would be decided through a draw of lot. In case of equality of votes between three or more candidates, re-election in the constituency will be ordered.
Election expenses and wealth statements
The maximum limit of election expenses will be Rs4 million for the National Assembly and Rs2 million for provincial assemblies and Rs1.5 million for Senate candidates. In the existing laws this limit was Rs1.5 million for NA and Rs1 million for candidates of provincial assemblies.
Not much has been changed about the registration of political parties except the introduction of Rs200,000 enlistment fee to list a party as the registered party. The proposed measure would hardly serve as a deterrent in the mushroom growth of political parties that saw their number exceed to 350 now, out of which hardly two dozen political parties are actively participating in the election process.
The new law is silent on making the intra-party elections exercise authentic, a necessary component to bring democracy within political parties.
The election laws have proposed limit to functions of caretaker governments, installed before the general elections. The caretaker governments would confine themselves to day-to-day routine and non-controversial matters and would not take major policy decisions expect on urgent matters.
Measures for women participation:
The most encouraging part of the proposed reforms bill is the provision to encourage participation of women in electoral process.
In terms of electoral lists, if there will be more than 10 per cent variation in the number of men and women voters in a constituency, the law requires the ECP to take special measures to reduce such variation.
Traditionally, there has been an overall gap of 12 per cent between male and female registered voters, which could not be bridged so far despite tall claims of election authorities.
The new law proposes presiding officers to keep gender-segregated record of voters in each polling station in the vote count.
If the turnout of women voters will be less than 10 per cent of the total votes polled in a constituency, it would be presumed that the women have been restrained illegally from casting their votes and the ECP would declare the election result void and order re-poll.
Similarly, another newly proposed provision would make it binding on political parties to award at least five per cent party tickets to women candidates on general seats.