Ms. Palwasha Khan is a student of International Relations at the National Defence University Islamabad.
Tussle Between PTI and the Opposition
Despite the opposition’s tumultuous protest, the PTI-led government managed to push through amendments to the Elections Act of 2017. On November 17th, 33 bills were passed – including bills regarding the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – during the joint session of the Parliament of Pakistan. Given that electronic voting machines grant voting rights to 9 million overseas Pakistanis, the opposition had their share of reservations on the government’s major move.
During the joint session, 33 bills were passed. With a total of 221 votes against 203 votes of the opposition parties, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) successfully passed amendments to the Elections Act of 2017. Voting on the amendments was earlier deferred at the request of Mr. Babar Awan, the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Parliamentary Affairs, as a result of a strong protest by the opposition. However, the government put it to vote again, infuriating the opposition.
The government found it difficult to pass the bill for around 3 hours. Following the passing of the bills, the opposition tore the copies of the agenda and stormed out of the session arguing that the National Assembly speaker, Mr. Asad Qaiser, did not consider their reservations concerning the government possessing fewer numbers than the required to pass the bills.
Leaders of the opposition parties – Mr. Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Mr. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – highlighted that the PTI-led government needed 222 votes, which is the majority of the total membership of both houses, to pass the bills.
Moreover, lawmakers assembled around treasury benches and chanted slogans against Prime Minister Imran Khan and his allies. The atmosphere had become contentious to the point that sergeants at arms were seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder, demarcating a barrier between the opposition and government to avoid a physical altercation.
According to the treasury benches, the government needs a simple majority of the members present in the house, as prescribed in Article 72 (4) of the constitution. Mr. Qaiser ruled that the constitution took precedence over all other rules. The exit of opposition parties in protest of the legislative process opened the way for the treasury benches. As a result, the bills were passed swiftly.
Case of Kulbhushan Jadhav
The government enacted the bill granting Mr. Kulbhushan Jadhav, a spy of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the right of review and reconsideration in accordance with the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ (Review and Re-consideration) Bill of 2020 was originally moved by law minister Mr. Farogh Nasim and passed with a majority vote.
According to the bill, the Indian government had initiated proceedings against Pakistan before the verdict of ICJ, claiming that it had breached the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations concerning Mr. Jadhav’s detention and trial. Previously, the Pakistani military court had granted a death sentence to Jadhav in 2017. In 2019, the ICJ stated that Pakistan was required to provide an effective review and reconsideration of the conviction of Jadhav.
Electronic Voting Machines vs the Opposition
At the beginning of the joint session of the Parliament, Mr. Sharif expressed his resentment regarding the enactment of the EVMs bill in Pakistan. He referred to them as “evil and vicious machines” and called out the government for bulldozing bills that were illegal and unconstitutional. Mr. Sharif wrote a letter to the National Assembly speaker, in which he expressed his dissatisfaction with the rushed passing of the bill without the majority’s consensus. All in all, he claimed that the government was not sincere in acquiring approval on electoral reforms.
Senator Sherry Rehman of PPP lashed out at the speaker and termed the joint session as a “black day” in the history of the Parliament of Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Mr. Shah Mehmood Qureshi, responded to Mr. Sharif and stated that EVMs are not “evil and vicious” but rather devised to eradicate evil and vicious designs from the country. Terming it as a “historic day”, Mr. Qureshi emphasized making the legislative process as clean and fair as possible. Mr. Qureshi said that the government had considered the opposition’s concerns before enacting the bill.
Mr. Bhutto addressed the speaker by requesting him to respect his position and the House. He pointed out that as the custodian of the National Assembly, any form of legislation must be met with the majority’s consensus. Speaking of EVMs, Mr. Bhutto argued that the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) had rejected the notion of those machines and therefore, the opposition will not acquiesce the next election if the bill is approved.
Members of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) were significantly discontent with the government’s move. The party’s leaders voiced alarm over claims that the state’s institutions were pressuring government allies to support the bill’s passing. They stated that they disregard such kind of interference on the government’s end and termed it as a breach of the constitution. PDM warned the PTI government not to push people’s patience beyond its bounds and stay within their constitutional limits. Prior to the joint session, PDM had already formed a two-member team to contest the passing of “controversial” bills.
The Anti-Rape Bill 2021
Among other bills, the Anti-Rape (Investigation and Trial) Bill that was passed seeks to provide effective procedures inclusive of a swift trial and collection of evidence. Besides this, another bill was also passed that is devised to combat the pervasive incidents of sexual abuse and rape against women and children by bringing legislative reforms. However, an amendment to the bill, put forward by Jamaat-e-Islami, intending to execute rapists publicly was rejected.
The PTI government has consistently emphasized devising an electoral process that is as clean and transparent as possible. It did so, by translating it to the introduction of EVMs. Moreover, the passing of 33 crucial bills indicates the progress of the legislative processes in the parliament. It may have been a historic day for the government and its allies, the opposite was, however, gravely dissatisfied and strongly resented the approval of the bills and the amendments to the existing ones.
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