May 27, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
The coalition government has rushed bills seeking amendments to the Election Act and National Accountability Ordinance through the Senate amid an uproar from the opposition Pakistan Tehrik Insaf.
The National Accountability (Second Amendment) Bill, 2021 and the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 were passed by the upper house on May 27 with no amendments to both bills passed a day earlier by the National Assembly. Both bills would become law after assent from the President.
The opposition benches protested moves by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar to immediately take both into consideration for a vote instead of the standard parliamentary procedure of referring them to the standing committees concerned. Minister Tarar said both bills had been adequately considered by opposition and treasury members in the respective standing committees during the PTI tenure. Leader of the Opposition in Shahzad Waseem said the present government would resort to bulldozing such legislation through parliament.
Amid the uproar of the opposition, Senate Chairman took the sense of the house by seeking a voice vote on whether the bills should be referred to standing committees. However, the majority of members voiced in the affirmative about taking the bills into consideration immediately. Both bills were passed with the majority of the Upper House.
The long road to President’s assent to bills
The office of the President has been a thorn in the side of the broad-based multiparty coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif, president of Pakistan Muslim League. The government has said that it would undertake reforms in the election and accountability laws to ensure fair and free elections as part of the coalition’s announced agenda following the voting out of the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf government, headed by Imran Khan.
President Arif Alvi has delayed appointment on important constitutional posts like governors in Punjab and Sindh by using constitutional provisions that gives him at least over four weeks to approve summaries sent by the prime minister.
It is expected that President Arif Alvi would try to delay assent to the above bills in a similar manner. According to Article 75 of the Constitution, the President has to give his assent within 10 days of a presentation of a bill other than money bill.
In the 10-day period, the President can return the bill to Parliament with a message requesting that the bill or any specified provision thereof, be reconsidered and that any amendment specified in the message be considered.
When the President has returned a bill to Parliament, the government has to pass it again with or without amendments in a joint sitting of Parliament. The bill has to be passed by a majority of members present in the joint sitting. The bill passed in joint sitting would then be sent to the President who has to give his assent within ten days. If the President fails to give assent within the period it would deem to have been given approval and the bill would become an act of Parliament.
Govt repeals use of EVMs, direct voting for overseas Pakistanis in general elections
The Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022 passed by the Senate repeals the amendments passed by parliament on December 2, 2021, allowing the use of electronic voting machines in general elections and granting right of vote to overseas Pakistanis.
According to the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2022, The Election Commission of Pakistan is to conduct pilot projects for voting by overseas Pakistanis in bye-elections to ascertain the technical efficacy, secrecy, and financial feasibility of such voting. Under the amendment in Section 94 subsection (1), the Election Commission is to shall share the results of the pilot projects with the government. The report in this regard is to be laid before both houses of Parliament within 15 days of its receipt from the Election Commission.
NAB wings clipped
Similarly, the National Accountability (Second Amendment) bill makes wide-ranging amendments to the accountability law in a bid to stem the use of the controversial National Accountability Bureau as a tool of political victimisation by successive governments.
“The National Accountability Ordinance was a singular most criticised piece of legislation and the judiciary had time to time called upon parliament to amend certain provisions violative of human rights,” Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar had said while speaking on the floor of the National Assembly on May 26.
The NAB amendment bill removed the four-year extension in term given to an incumbent NAB chairman as well as allowed him to continue in office till a successor is appointed under the ordinance issued in the previous government’s tenure.
The NAB deputy chairman would become acting chairman following a chairman’s retirement. The process to appoint a new chairman would begin two months prior to the chief’s retirement and be completed in 40 days.
According to the NAB amendment bill, if the prime minister and leader of the opposition are unable to agree on an appointee, the matter would be referred to the parliamentary committee. The parliamentary committee would then finalise the name for a new chairman within 30 days.
The corruption watchdog’s wide-ranging purview has been clipped with the removal of federal and provincial tax matters. NAB would also not investigate regulatory bodies’ decisions.
The judges would be appointed in accountability courts for a three-year period and cases have to be decided within a year. The bureau would also be bound to ensure the availability of evidence prior to arrest.
In order to deter NAB officials from filing trumped cases, they would face up to five-years imprisonment for filing a false reference.
NAB would submit their reports to parliament instead of the President under the amendment bill. Interestingly, the amendment bill would be enforced across the country with retrospective effect from the promulgation of the National Accountability Ordinance in 1999.