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Dawn Editorial 22 May 2020

Open ballot?

THE government has floated a proposal to end the secret ballot in the Senate elections in order to bring greater transparency to the electoral exercise for the upper house. These proposals are part of a larger set of electoral reforms that were placed before the federal cabinet recently. In a press conference, federal ministers Shafqat Mehmood and Azam Swati said efforts would be made to have a broad-based consensus on these electoral reforms so that constitutional changes could be made accordingly. The two ministers were part of a parliamentary committee formed to look into allegations of rigging in the 2018 elections. The opposition, however, did not take part in the proceedings, and ultimately, the committee focused on drawing up a list of electoral reforms.
The proposal to make the Senate election an open one makes sense in the context of manipulations that have happened in the past. These elections often attract accusations of horse-trading and in the past PTI also took action against some of its members from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who were found to have been involved in selling their votes in the Senate elections. Similarly, the election for the chairman of the Senate was also weighed down by controversy when a number of votes shifted across party lines. Due to secret balloting in these elections, various pressure groups have also been able to influence votes and outcomes. This lack of transparency continues to cast a dark shadow over the upper house. Therefore, an attempt to reform the process would be a timely one. However, there are some complications. The floor-crossing law bars any parliamentarian from voting against his party regardless of his or her opinion on the issue. This law was aimed at curbing horse-trading and therefore when it comes to open voting, the members are bound by party policy instead of voting with their conscience. This may have served a specific purpose at one time but it does curtail the independence of thought that is expected of a parliamentarian. If the secret ballot were to be done away with in the Senate without reviewing the floor-crossing restriction, the benefit may remain diluted.
It may be prudent for political parties to perhaps take another look at this floor-crossing law and decide whether it has outlived its utility. In the same vein, parties should also factor in the complications arising from an open vote in the Senate knowing the complicated format of the election. Voters have to list their preferences for each vacant position, and it is natural that this will create bitterness when shared publicly. What is needed is a greater effort by all political parties to forge a consensus on the Senate election reform as part of a larger set of reforms that have now become overdue in light of lessons learnt from recent elections.


Debt relief

PAKISTAN is on the verge of receiving debt relief under the G20 plan and according to an official announcement the total amount is $2bn. There is a possibility that this amount will increase if the period of coverage is extended beyond December 2020. At the moment, the relief is being extended to loans from bilateral creditors, accompanied by a call from the G20 to private creditors to also offer “comparable terms”. Perhaps the same terms can be extended to multilateral creditors too.
It was a wise decision though, on the part of the finance adviser, to make public his government’s resolve to not approach private creditors for comparable relief. All through the period since the plan was announced till today, the financial leadership of the government and State Bank sent confusing signals to private markets regarding their intention to seek debt relief from private creditors. This ambiguity adversely impacted Pakistan’s credit rating, which was put under review by Moody’s, casting a shadow over the future of the country’s B3 rating. The rating agency explicitly said that seeking debt relief on bilateral loans under the G20 initiative contributed to the review, but such action is unlikely to negatively impact the rating since it is under an officially sanctioned initiative and is more likely to free up resources than constrain them further. It was the uncertainty over whether or not Pakistan will approach private creditors that seems to have driven the decision, which it seems forced the hand of the financial adviser who made a clear announcement that the government does not intend to seek relief from private creditors. Now that the relief is imminent, it is important to emphasise that it be utilised in a manner consistent with the rationale under which it has been offered. The G20 moved at the behest of the multilateral creditors, the World Bank and the IMF, and all three have made it very clear that the resources they seek to free up are to be utilised for the fight against the coronavirus. One part of this fight is the management of the economic fallout that the pandemic and its attendant mitigation efforts have created. But in significant measure, resources are required for social protection and ramped-up health investments. It is important that the space created by the debt relief be used to aid the fight against the pandemic first and foremost.


Women e-doctors

A TECHNOLOGY-DRIVEN initiative undertaken by the Sindh government since two years is bearing fruit in unexpected ways during the pandemic. The eDoctor project, launched in 2018, is aimed at 35,000 women doctors who had quit the field after graduating from various public and private medical colleges in the country. Some 800 ‘inactive’ female doctors all over Pakistan as well as in places like the US, UAE and Greece have thus far been enabled to resume their profession. After undergoing training in updated medical practices and virtual digital technology, they have been conducting live video-based patient consultations and clinical rotations with medical consultants in Pakistani hospitals. In the latest development, around 400 of them have been recruited for round-the-clock virtual monitoring through IT-enabled technology of 8,000 Covid-19 patients who are in home isolation in Sindh. These long-distance doctors are proving to be a valuable resource for the government to advise self-isolated patients who may have only mild symptoms, or even no symptoms at all, on day-to-day management of their illness. Information about their recovery process is also shared with relevant district and local health administrations, which helps them maintain a more accurate and up-to-date record.
Instead of reinventing the wheel, it is always more prudent to extract the most out of existing capacities and the Sindh government should be lauded on this score. The project, spearheaded by the Dow University of Health Sciences, is one way to respond to the sadly low retention rate of female medical graduates in their field. Women comprise about 70pc of students in medical school; but less than 50pc end up practising, which amounts to an enormous waste of state funds that go towards subsidising government medical colleges. Simultaneously, there must also be efforts to change the narrative on the sociocultural issues that lead to this outcome. The medical profession is too important to be sacrificed to family pressure, often because prospective in-laws want a ‘doctor bride’ but can’t brook her practising post marriage.


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