Reforms through consensus

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PRIME Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet are vowing to focus on electoral as well as institutional reforms to make the entire electoral process free, fair and transparent in the true sense of the word and strengthen institutions.

This was evident from the address of the Prime Minister to the meeting of the Federal Cabinet and legislative agenda adopted by the highest policy-making platform.

The premier told the cabinet that he wanted regular updates on mechanisms being developed to ensure overseas Pakistanis can vote, in addition to the use of technology such as electronic voting machines (EVMs).

The meeting also approved draft legislation envisaging empowerment of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and making it answerable to Parliament; reduce tax exemptions and make taxation transparent and reforms in the management and oversight of the public sector entities.

The need for electoral reforms has once again been highlighted by events surrounding bye-elections to some constituencies of the National and Provincial Assemblies as well as Senate elections.

Almost all parties claim to have suffered due to use of unfair means during general and bye-elections but despite that they have not been able to forge consensus on electoral reforms because of lack of required vision.

The intention of the Prime Minister to move ahead on the issue of electoral reforms is welcome but the Government can hardly succeed in giving practical shape to its ideas and plans in this regard without taking the opposition on board.

Not to speak of the constitutional amendments, the Government would still face problems in getting legislation done in the upper house where the opposition would be in majority.

However, as the opposition too has been complaining of ‘theft of elections’, it should extend cooperation to the government in carrying out legislation that could form the basis for absolute transparency in the electoral process.

The use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and grant of right of vote to Overseas Pakistanis are among major planks of the government’s agenda for electoral reforms but the issues are not as simple as these are being presented.

The Prime Minister has desired to emulate the electronic voting system in vogue in the United States but we must keep in mind that despite unparalleled technological advances, the country has not been able to guard against hacking or cyber attacks that could change the result of the voting.

There are different versions of EVMs in the world but challenges arise as attempts to make these machines simple for voters to understand and record their intentions make them vulnerable in terms of security and accessibility.

There are also concerns that ballot programming can be tampered with and that is why a campaign is underway in India to revert back to paper balloting.

We must also keep in mind the issue of overall cost of procurement of these machines and their replacement cost.

Anyhow, we have time till next elections and hopefully all aspects of the issue would be considered and taken care of before taking a final decision.

Overseas Pakistanis should definitely be allowed to exercise their right to vote but the real issue is evolution of a workable and transparent system.

The proposed State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) Bill 2021could prove to be a harbinger of real change as it provides the boards of directors of the SOEs shall be given more autonomy in terms of decision-making in addition to ensuring the separation of the Office of Chairman from the CEO in all SOEs including entities established through special enactments.

Moreover, the role of the line ministries/divisions shall be streamlined for operational autonomy of the SOEs.

As has been explained by Finance Minister, Dr. Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, the SOEs were operating in the country in a hotchpotch manner and reporting to various ministries and regulators, but now they would be governed by respective boards, free from interference of the ministries.

It augurs well that the government has decided to retain 14 entities under its control which also include Pakistan Railways and Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), where a process of reforms has already begun to improve their working and turn them into profitable institutions.

The SBP Amendment Bill, 2021seeks absolute autonomy to the central bank, which will allow it to target inflation, rather than economic growth.

The Prime Minister has vowed to get regular updates on reforms but realization of the targets is deeply linked to harmonious working of Parliament which should be the number one priority of the government.