Neutral caretakers, independent EC promised; passed 20th Amendment bill
15 February, 2012
ISLAMABAD: The weeks-long negotiations between the government and PML-N came to a fruitful culmination late on Tuesday evening when the National Assembly unanimously passed the 20th Constitutional Amendment bill aimed at ensuring fair and transparent elections under a bipartisan caretaker setup.
The amendement also laid the framework for creating a truly independent Election Commission and validated the earlier 28 by-elections of legislators, which had been suspended by the Supreme Court on the grounds of being flawed as they had been conducted by a constitutionally incomplete election commission.
As many as 247 members constituting more than two thirds the total strength of the lower house of parliament voted in favour of the 20th amendment in the Constitution. No member opposed the bill.
The new bill is aimed at making the Election Commission truly independent and establishing neutral caretaker set-ups both in the centre and in the provinces to hold transparent elections.
"This amendment has added to the prestige of parliament and will further strengthen democracy," Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani said while addressing the House after the passage of the bill. "Today politicians from the opposition and treasury benches have united to strengthen democracy", he stated. PM Gilani said the passage of the 20th Amendment would ensure fair, free and transparent elections for future generations. "This bill has ensured that there will be an impartial caretaker setup and fair and free elections in the future," he added.
Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said contentious issues relating to the 20th Amendment were settled through dialogue and a broad consensus had been developed. Amid the thumping of desks from both the opposition and treasury benches, Nisar praised the government for accommodating the opposition's demands.
Chaudhry Nisar said that now an independent and autonomous Election Commission would get constitutional cover and a mechanism had been evolved to nominate the caretaker PM and chief ministers, while the government had committed that the leader of the opposition would be appointed in Sindh.
Nisar said constitutional cover has been given to bye-elections held during the period when the Election Commission was incomplete. He said in case of a vacancy in seats for women and minorities, political parties would be allowed to provide names to the Election Commission. "The government has verbally made a commitment that an opposition leader will be appointed in the Sindh Assembly as according to the 20th amendment bill, consensus between the leader of the house and opposition leader in the provincial and national assemblies will be mandatory for caretaker setups," Nisar said, adding that it had also been agreed between the government and the opposition that the tenure of the sitting chief election commissioner, ending next month, would not be extended.
The Bill will amend six articles and the second and third schedule of the Constitution as well as add a new article to the document. Amendments in Articles 214, 215, 216, 218, and 219 as well as those in two schedules are directed at the establishment of an autonomous Election Commission and give legal cover to the bye-elections held while the Election Commission was not complete.
The tenure of the Members of the Election Commission has been fixed for five years.Amendments and additions in Articles 48 and 224 of the Constitution detail the procedure that will be adopted if PM and the leader of the opposition (and CM and leader of opposition in case of provincial assembly) do not agree on who to appoint as caretaker PM or CM. In this case, within three days of the dissolution of the Assembly, they shall forward two nominees each to a committee to be immediately constitution by the Speaker of the National Assembly.
The committee would consist of eight members of the outgoing National Assembly or Senate, having equal representation from the treasury and the opposition. Members of the committee would be nominated by the outgoing PM and the leader of the opposition.
The committee will finalise the name within three days of the referral of the matter. If the committee is unable to decide, the names of the nominees shall be referred to the Election Commission for final decision within two days. The same procedure would be followed in the provinces but in case that the chief minister and the opposition leader do not reach consensus, the strength of the committee to finalise the name of the caretaker chief minister will be six for the provincial set-ups (three each from opposition and treasury benches of the outgoing assembly).
The incumbent PM and CM shall continue to hold office till the appointment of the caretaker PM and CM. The provision also clarifies that if the members of the opposition are less than five in the National Assembly and less then four in any Provincial Assembly, all of them shall be members of the said committee.
According to an amendment in Article 215 of the constitution, the Chief Election Commissioner and members of the election would hold office for a period of five years. Earlier Tuesday, the federal cabinet gave approval to the amended draft of the 20th constitutional amendment to give protection to 28 legislators elected through bye-elections.
The bill also clips the president's power to appoint the caretaker government, transferring this power to the leader of the house and leader of the opposition.
"The draft bill has been finalised with consensus after consultation with all political parties including the opposition," said Information Minister Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan while briefing media persons after the conclusion of the special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Gilani.
"The 20th amendment that envisages amendments in articles 219, 214, 215, 216, 218, 219 and 224, besides the inclusion of a new article 224A in the constitution, following its passage from both the houses of the parliament, shall come into force at once and shall deem to have taken effect on April 19, 2010," Dr Firdous said.
The minister said the amendment would give one time legal cover to the election of members of the parliament and the provincial assemblies suspended by the Supreme Court. She said according to the previous composition of the Election Commission, only the chief election commissioner used to take oath under the constitution. "The 20th amendment will make it binding on all of its members to take oath like the chief election commissioner and the judges of the superior courts. Under this amendment, tenure of the Election Commission's members has been fixed at five years. It also entails the procedure for their removal from office," she added
Dr Firdous said these steps would help strengthen the Election Commission and ensure free, fair and transparent elections in the country. The minister said under this amendment, a caretaker prime minister and cabinet would be installed before the general elections.
To a question, the minister said Chaudhry Nisar had not linked the PML-N's support to the 20th amendment with reduction in petroleum prices. She said the government has formed a parliamentary committee to review recent increase in prices of petroleum products, which was finalising its recommendations. "Let the recommendations of parliamentary committee come," she said, adding that the government would take decision according to the committee's recommendations.
Dr Firdous said the cabinet appreciated the role of Nadra in preparation of computerised electoral rolls carrying photographs of the voters. She said the cabinet was informed that a special paper would be imported for the publication of ballot papers so that the doors of rigging were closed forever.
Appreciating the role of the opposition, she said under the parliamentary form of government, the system couldn't be run without the active participation of the opposition. The minister said in the past the tradition was to push the opposition to the wall, but the present PPP regime, by following true democratic norms, had taken opposition parties along and evolved consensus on vital constitutional amendments.
About the implementation of the 18th amendment bill, she said 8 ministries had been devolved to the provinces. "Strengthening the provinces is the agenda of the government because strong provinces will guarantee a strong federation."
The cabinet appreciated the services and contributions of Prime Minister Gilani and reposed full confidence in his leadership. Cabinet members and coalition partners recognised the services of the prime minister and expressed full solidarity with him for the continuation of a democratic set up and supremacy of the parliament.
The cabinet also appreciated the prime minister's appearance before the Supreme Court saying it would help promote rule of law and ensure independence of the judiciary.
The prime minister thanked the cabinet members and the coalition partners for expressing solidarity with him. He said the government respected all the institutions and did not want clash between any of them. "We don't harbour malafide intentions against anyone. However, all institutions should adhere to the trichotomy of power for strengthening democracy in the country," the prime minister said. He said there would be no clash among institutions if all worked within their respective domains.
The prime minister said the present cabinet had taken unprecedented decisions and steps during the last four years. "We signed preferential and free trade agreements with different countries besides earning a special package from the European Union," he added.
The Federal Cabinet also endorsed the decisions of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) relating to the export of sugar and import of Urea and gave approval to three MoUs to be signed with India in Islamabad today (Wednesday).
The cabinet reviewed the implementation status of its earlier decisions in respect of different ministries. The cabinet was informed that out of 11 decisions relating to the Ministry of Information and Technology, nine were implemented while two were in the implementation stage.
The premier directed that the auction of 3-G licence should also be expedited by removing all bottlenecks. Secretary Finance apprised the cabinet about the consumer price index and sensitive price index. The secretary said food inflation had remained under control during the month of January. "The prices of 15 essential commodities witnessed a downward trend while those of 29 remained unchanged," he said.
The cabinet also approved the statute of the OIC women development organisation. The cabinet also constituted a committee to review the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design Bill 2011.