It's been a while since crying foul the Opposition parties had walked out of a special parliamentary committee constituted by the National Assembly Speaker to probe their allegations of rigging in the last elections. Still, the committee remained functional. The other day, two of its members, federal ministers Shafqat Mehmood and Azam Swati, held a press conference to announce a number of proposals for electoral reforms that are to be presented before Parliament in the form of a constitutional amendment bill. Some of them, such the voting rights for overseas Pakistanis, and mandatory use of biometric verification of voters in general elections, have already been a subject of much discussion and controversy. The new proposals include holding Senate elections through an open vote in place of the current practice of secret balloting – a much-needed change, indeed.

Stating the obvious, Swati said that since the government does not have two-thirds majority in Parliament it expects support from other parties for the passage of the bill. Considering the present state of government-opposition relations the bill is not going to have an easy sailing. What should be of interest to all, however, is holding of Senate election through show of hands. Horse trading has tarnished almost all previous Senate elections, with some provincial assemblies' members abandoning party affiliations to sell their votes to the highest bidders. During the last elections, for instance, a party with just seven members in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly managed to win two Senate seats and nearly a third one, impelling Prime Minister Imran Khan to take action against 20 PTI MPAs suspected of falling to the temptation of easy money. Even so, in Punjab, despite his party having a small presence in the PML(N)-dominated house, a PTI candidate managed to win his bid for a Senate seat. As immoral as the sale and purchase of votes is, it also amounts to cheating the parties on whose tickets they get elected, and the people who vote for those parties.

That though is not the only cause of concern. It may be recalled that the last election of Senate chairman had ended in a lot bitterness and accusations of horse trading flying all around. Such unsavoury situations can and should be avoided by changing the present mode of election through secret balloting. As laid down by the Constitution, election of the prime minister and chief ministers is held through show of hands. There is no reason why the same procedure should not be followed in the case of Senate chairman. It should be included in the proposed electoral reforms so as to make transparent the entire election process. The opposition parties may have their reservations about some of the reform proposals, but that should not stop them from doing their bit. Hopefully, they will participate in the reform effort with the seriousness it demands. The way forward is to arrive at some sort of a consensus in the greater interest of the democratic process.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020