It was an unseemly sight in the National Assembly weeks ago when the Opposition parties resorted to heckling, desk-thumping and loud shouting as the government presented the 26th constitutional amendment bill that sought open balloting in the Senate elections. Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem presented the bill but had to stop midway due to noisy sloganeering and protests by the Opposition benches.
The chaos on the National Assembly floor was marked by “honourable” lawmakers abusing each other and engaging in physical scuffle. At one point, the Speaker of the Assembly had to be protected by sergeants-at-arms, who made a ring around him as the Opposition lawmakers came menacingly close to him. It was for the first time in our parliamentary history that the treasury members staged a walkout from the house after pointing out lack of quorum to prevent the Opposition lawmakers from making speeches.
As a result, despite a three-hour session, the debate on the bill seeking an open Senate vote remained inconclusive. The Opposition parties had been putting up stiff resistance to the PTI’s proposal on the issue of open ballot for the Senate elections. But their rowdy behavior in the National Assembly made a mockery of their repeated proclamations about upholding the norms and values of democracy.
Despite the fracas in the National Assembly, the government went ahead with its plans and President Arif Alvi issued an ordinance for holding the upcoming Senate elections through an open vote by amending the Election Act 2017. The ordinance says: “Provided that in case the Supreme Court gives an opinion that elections for members of the Senate do not fall within the purview of Article 226 of the Constitution, the poll for elections for members of the Senate shall be conducted through an open and identifiable ballot.”
Legal opinion is divided on the question of whether the change in the Act would suffice for open balloting to take place or whether a constitutional amendment will be needed for the purpose. The government’s stand is that the mode of voting needs to be changed to deal with the menace of vote purchasing by the Opposition parties in the Senate elections. The counter argument is that any constitutional amendment aimed at improving the electoral system be discussed and debated at length with the aim of reaching a consensus. But the government failed to undertake such an exercise.
A better way would be to tackle the open ballot issue as part of a larger set of electoral reforms that are long overdue. It is time the government and the Opposition agreed to start processing the reforms in the House committees with the intention of drafting a comprehensive bill that fixes all weaknesses in the electoral system. All stakeholders should be taken on board and the bill be passed through a consensus so that everyone takes ownership. But such a denouement seems impossible in the current atmosphere of rising tension between the government and the Opposition parties. The way the Opposition behaved in the National Assembly has blocked all possibilities of a constructive dialogue with the ruling party on electoral reforms and other issues.
During the last three months the Opposition parties combined together in the so-called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) have held a series of rallies across Pakistan to achieve its stated aim of forcing the PTI government out of power. It also fixed date after date for Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign but the latter has soldiered on regardless. Later, the PDM announced that its elected members will resign from the assemblies in order to paralyse the functioning of the parliamentary system. The Opposition alliance also announced a “long march” on the capital, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman in the month of February, but it did not materialize. Now it has been announced that the Opposition caravans will march on Islamabad on March 26, but again no details have been shared about the alliance’s strategy.
According to some analysts, one reason why PDM’s movement has been losing momentum is that its constituent parties don’t see eye to eye on many issues, such as resignation from the assemblies. Also, the PPP’s desire to move a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Imran Khan is clearly not popular with the other parties. Until now, the alliance is sticking together but what is their final goal is not yet clear. Going by the past record, there are also doubts whether the announced march on March will take place at all.
All said, it is time for both government and Opposition to turn away from the path of confrontation and develop a working relationship so that the political temperature in the country can be brought down and more attention is paid to solving problems that afflict the daily lives of the people. The weal of the people should not be sacrificed at the altar of the vaulting ambitions of power-seeking politicians.