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Govt may not be able to fund elections where EVMs are not used, Info Minister Fawad

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Federal Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhry said on Tuesday that there was a likelihood of the government not being able to fund elections that would not include the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs).

Speaking after a federal cabinet meeting in Islamabad, he told media persons that the cabinet had discussed the matter at length and agreed that the Election Commission of Pakistan was bound to use EVMs in by-elections.

“And one of the points of view [shared in the meeting] was that the government could not fund any election held without [the use of] EVMs as after the recent amendment, the law [only] recognised polls involving the use of EVMs,” he said, adding that Law Minister Farogh Naseem had the same point of view.

The minister was referring to contentious amendments to the Elections Act, 2017, which were bulldozed through a joint session of parliament amid fervent protest by the opposition earlier this month. The amendments allowed the use of EVMs and granted voting rights to overseas Pakistanis, on which the opposition has repeatedly expressed reservations.

Chaudhry told reporters on Tuesday that after deliberating on the matter in light of the recent amendment, the cabinet had formed a committee in this regard and the law ministry would also give its opinion.

“And it seems that we will only be able to release funds to the Election Commission [of Pakistan] for polls where EVMs will be used,” he reiterated, adding that the government now wanted the ECP to start working towards the induction of EVMs in elections.

Moreover, he said, Science and Technology Minister Shibli Faraz had shared during today’s cabinet meeting a comprehensive plan on the use of EVMs, which included details such as how many machines would be required.

“And we want the ECP to now move forward according to this schedule,” he added.

During the press briefing, the minister also spoke about recently surfaced video clips wherein individuals were seen distributing cash, allegedly for getting on-oath pledges from voters to cast votes in their favour ahead of the NA-133 by-poll in Lahore.

“The cabinet has expressed concern on the videos,” he said, adding that had quick action been taken after a similar incident during Senate elections in March this year, “we would not have been facing this situation [again].”

Highlighting the importance of transparent election in a democratic country, he said while it was important that the ECP was strengthened, it being “effective” was also of significance. And hence, the ECP needed to take such incidents of rigging to their logical conclusion. he stressed.

‘Sindh govt responsible for inflation’

Chaudhry also held the Sindh government responsible for the rising prices of commodities in Pakistan, saying that the Sensitive Price Index (SPI) readings — a measure of change in prices on a weekly basis — were “messed up” mainly because of data from Karachi and Hyderabad where inflation was high.

According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the country’s annual consumer price inflation rate rose to 11.5pc in November. Citing this data, Reuters reported that the rate was higher than 9.2pc recorded the previous month, as the government and central bank, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), continue to struggled with high inflation.

The SBP had also lifted the interest rate by 150 basis points this month, in part due to surging price growth.

On the contrary, Chaudhry said a presentation on the prices of kitchen items was given in today’s cabinet meeting and it showed that the prices had gone down in recent days.

The SPI, he said, had recorded a decrease of 0.67 per cent and the price of sugar had reduced by more than Rs60 in a month. He claimed that the rise in the price of sugar was “basically due to the Sindh government delaying the [sugarcane] crushing season”.

“The bigger issue here is that of Karachi and Hyderabad,” which are two of the biggest cities of Sindh. In these cities being governed by the same rulers for the past 30 year, the Sindh government had not been able to control the prices of essential commodities, the minister said.

But 40pc of data for the SPI came from Karachi, he said, adding that the high price readings from the metropolis “mess up” the overall SPI readings.

“Flour price is the highest in Hyderabad, followed by that in Karachi,” he complained. “And the price of sugar remains to be the highest in Karachi.” Further, he alleged, urea was being smuggled and hoarded in Sindh, which led to an increase in its price in the province. “And they (the Sindh government) are involved in this, so who will they take action against? They surely can’t take action against their cabinet.”

This, he said, clearly showed that the Sindh government was “unable to handle its matters in Karachi and Hyderabad,” and data on prices from these cities “messes up” the SPI.

Chaudhry urged Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah to address the province’s issues, adding that it may seem that the Sindh government was being criticised for “political purposes, but facts are out in the open”.

Moreover, the minister claimed that except for tea, the prices of all other kitchen commodities were the cheapest in Pakistan in the region, comprising India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

“We are doing whatever we can in these times of global inflation,” he remarked.

The minister also announced that rice would be a bumper crop this year with the harvest of nine million metric tonnes.

‘Gas reserves depleting’

Speaking about gas, of which the country is seeing a shortage with the arrival of winter, the minister warned that gas reserves in the country were depleting.

“And we have not discovered any new resources,” he said, highlighting the need for a strategy to address the issue of disappearing indigenous reserves of gas and the emerging shortfall of the commodity.

He said only 28pc Pakistanis were actually being supplied gas, and “the rest of the country, deprived of the commodity’s supply, facilitates” this small percentage.

Hence, “we need a policy to fulfil the gas need of all Pakistanis.”

The minister also outlined the measures taken by the government in this regard.

‘Leaked’ affidavit

Chaudhry also commented on Former chief justice of Gilgit-Baltistan Rana Shamim distancing himself from an affidavit attributed to him in which allegations of collusion were levelled against another former jurist Mian Saqib Nisar.

The matter had surfaced when a report published on November 15 in The News by journalist Ansar Abbasi quoted Shamim as saying in an alleged affidavit that he witnessed Nisar relaying instructions to a high court judge to not release former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, in corruption references against them.

Subsequently, the Islamabad High Court had issued show-cause notices to Shamim and others in the case.

During the hearing on the matter today, Shamim told the court he had not yet examined the affidavit attributed to him. When asked whether he had given it to a newspaper, the former judge had responded, “My affidavit is sealed in a locker in the UK. I don’t know how it was leaked.”

Terming the development “surprising”, Fawad said if the affidavit was in a locker, how did it reach the newspaper that initially reported it.

“It seems that the affidavit reached the newspaper through Nawaz Sharif,” he commented.” A campaign has been launched against the judiciary and armed forces and we hope that the court would take the matter to its logical conclusion.”

The Omicron concern

Earlier in his speech, Chaudhry expressed concern over the discovery of the coronavirus’ Omicron variant, saying that reports suggested it spread 10 times faster than other variants.

Therefore, the cabinet had asked provincial governments and citizens to ensure the completion of inoculation againt the coronavirus.

“The virus is surely going to reach the country and we must be wearing masks as well,” he emphasised.

Sharing other developments from the cabinet meeting, he said formalities had been completed for the SBP receiving $3 billion from Saudi Arabia $1.2bn worth of oil supplies from the Kingdom, approval had been given for limiting the construction of buildings around airports and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam had been tasked with formulating a long-term policy on smog in Lahore.

He added that the Federal Investigation Agency had been asked to launch a programme against human trafficking, Pakistan would be sending 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan and Islamabad would also host an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation’s Council of Foreign Ministers to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

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