New Delhi: Amid opposition protests and ruckus in the senate, ‘electoral reforms’ were ‘bulldozed’ through Pakistan’s Upper House in October 2017. Again, in 2021, an amendment to the Elections Act 2017, was pushed through a joint session of parliament amid “fervent protest by the opposition”. The difference remains that in 2017, it was a government led by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) and in 2021, the government was led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Ahead of the 2023 general elections, Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PML-N) and its coalition have yet again promised another set of electoral reforms in the country to undo Imran Khan’s 2021 reforms, where he tried to lure the votes of overseas Pakistanis and called for a switch to Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) for ‘greater transparency’.
On 11 May, co-chair and former president of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, confirmed the government’s intent saying, “the elections will take place after the amendment of the electoral law”. A day after Zardari’s comments, president of the ruling alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), Maulana Fazlur Rehman said, “But it’s my opinion that the elections should only be held after electoral reforms”
However, many in Pakistan and its media say this is a tactic to delay the elections after the ouster of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Though Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has not said much about the reforms after assuming office, reports in The Nation suggest that he has already started consulting some of his allies on electoral reforms and elections, among other issues.
The Dawn noted a contrast in the comments of other coalition partners, “ a sharp divergence of views on the issue has come to the fore in recent days, with Maryam Nawaz, Ahsan Iqbal and Ishaq Dar among core PML-N leaders speaking in favour of seeking the people’s mandate sooner rather than later”.
Interestingly, former foreign minister in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said that they were ready to accept the electoral reforms for a free and fair election with a condition that the election date must be announced.
A history of controversial electoral reforms
During the previous tenure of PML-N, Election Act 2017 “was passed amidst a ruckus as opposition lawmakers protested what they saw as a law designed to accommodate a single individual — ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif”, wrote The Dawn. Opposition parties also tore the copies of the Bill.
After the former prime minister was ousted from office over corruption charges, the opposition blamed clause 103 of the new Election Act 2017 of allowing Nawaz Sharif to remain his party’s president, which was earlier illegal.
Proposing another amendment to the Act in 2021, Imran Khan’s PTI also made provisions to allow voting for overseas citizens and the introduction of EVMs. This time, the new opposition walked out and tore copies of the bill. The session in which The Elections (Second Amendment) Bill 2021, was passed was itself historic. A landmark 33 Bills were passed in parliament through a single-joint session—itself an indicator that the laws did not get much debate time.
The News.com wrote, “It is generally believed that the (PTI) government intends to make arrangements in a bid to win the next general election at all costs as it eyes on overseas Pakistanis votes along with EVMs.”
Then member of opposition, Fazl Ur Rehman had claimed that “EVMs are the simplest ways of rigging elections”, a sentiment that was also echoed by Shehbaz Sharif, who called EVMs “evil and vicious”.
However, Shehbaz Sharif, even before being elected as the Prime Minister, had promised to reform the electoral system. He had assured changes in the clauses on overseas voting and EVMs.
The significance of an overseas vote bank
Apart from EVMs, rules to allow overseas Pakistanis to vote had also been contested by the opposition. It is no secret that PTI has a strong vote bank among the overseas Pakistanis. In an Op-Ed article in Express Tribune, Sarwar Bari wrote, “Considering that PTI is more popular amongst overseas Pakistanis, it wants to translate that popularity into a vote bank by providing overseas Pakistanis with the facility of I-voting. On the other hand, for the same reason, the ruling coalition wants to deprive PTI of this advantage.”
The overseas vote bank holds significance because it “can swing elections in at least 20 hotly-contested constituencies in the National Assembly,” according to a report by Geo News. These include high-profile seats from Lahore, Rawalpindi, Sialkot and Peshawar. And PTI was expected to make gains in all, due to its overseas support.
However, Shahzad Sharjeel in The Dawn argues, “no one has stopped the opposition from mobilising their overseas chapters and they should have worked on it instead of begrudging Imran Khan’s popularity among the expats”. It is still not clear what the electoral reforms would bring in precisely.
With the question revolving around early elections, it is yet to be seen if the Sharif government will be able to pass third electoral reforms in mere five years by a third successive government.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)