Senate Election and Horse-trading

By ZAHID HUSSAIN: GOOD or bad, the Senate election is over, defying all conspiracy theories. Notwithstanding a few upsets, the results were largely predictable though there are some shouts of foul play. The PML-N may have emerged as the single largest party in the house by sweeping almost all the seats up for grabs in Punjab and a few more in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but the battle for the control of the upper house is far from over.

It is certainly not going to be easy for the ruling party to have its nominee elected as Senate chairman despite the combined numerical strength of its coalition partners. Horse-trading is the name of the game and the outcome is extremely unpredictable. The PML-N’s endeavor to get control of both houses of parliament is not likely to succeed with the dice heavily cast against it.

Pakistan’s Senate elections have all that is manifest in the country’s flawed democratic process. Candidates are mostly handpicked by all powerful party heads. Cronies are accommodated in the house. Loyalties are shifted overnight and one is not surprised to see the turncoats returning to the house under a different party banner each time. Money can buy a party ticket or even a seat in the august house standing as an independent. The latest election has not been any different to what we have witnessed in the past, raising questions about the sanctity of the elected forum representing the federation.

What happened in the latest election does not come as a surprise — not even the PPP winning two seats and coming very close to snapping up a third one in KP with only seven members in the provincial legislature. While losing one in its stronghold, the PTI staged the biggest upset in Punjab by snatching one seat from the PML-N. The sweep of the so-called independent group in Balochistan too was foretold after the recent political re-engineering in the province.

Predictably, the fragmentation of the MQM came as a boon to the PPP, allowing the party to stay in the game of thrones. Billions of rupees allegedly changed hands to purchase the Fata seats. Now these newly elected members may be up for sale to the highest bidder in the election for Senate chairman.

Interestingly, both the PML-N and the PTI are calling for investigation into the vote-purchase allegation. But it is for these parties to look into their own ranks for the wrongdoers. It’s not just about money being used to buy votes; in some cases the upset has also been caused by the revolt within the ranks against the choice of candidates by the party leaders.

In KP particularly, the upset had also to do with the protest against the PTI’s choice — not based on merit but on other considerations — of some candidates. The humiliating defeat of Maulana Samiul Haq who was being supported by the PTI is one such example. Similarly, in Punjab, PML-N members rejected Zubair Gul who was handpicked by Nawaz Sharif for his services to the family. The MQM leadership has only itself to blame for the debacle it has experienced.

While crying foul, political leaders are still not willing to reform the system and make their party more democratic in order to stop the corrupt practices.

There have also been questions regarding the PML-N’s awarding tickets to Ishaq Dar who has been declared absconder by an accountability court. The former finance minister is also facing graft charges. Another one on the PML-N list is Rana Maqbool, a notorious retired senior police officer who had been accused of torturing Asif Ali Zardari when the latter was under detention. Their election certainly does not add to the prestige of the Senate.

The PPP can be rightly criticized for many wrongdoings, but to its credit, the party sends relatively more credible members to the Senate. It is highly commendable for the party to have had a Hindu woman, Krishna Kumari, elected, and that too on a general seat. The PPP members have traditionally been more active in the house, initiating debate on important national issues. The Senate will miss people like Farhatullah Babar and some other members who have now completed their term.

Now begins the second phase of the battle for the control of the upper house that may also cast a long shadow over the coming general elections. A combined opposition can block the PML-N, though it seems unlikely that the PTI will join hands with the PPP. Interestingly, the newly formed independent bloc in Balochistan has emerged as the main power broker staking its claim for the top slot.

One would not be surprised if the group’s demand wins the support of both the PPP and the PTI; it may even divide the ruling coalition. Such a move could effectively block the PML-N’s bid to capture the coveted post that the party deems critical for its plan to change the Constitution in order to quash Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification.

A person-specific amendment would not be acceptable to other mainstream political parties. It still remains to be seen how the PML-N plays its cards in case it fails to rally the support of the other parties for its candidate. The field is open and it is going to be a tough battle. The PML-N would sail through if the PTI and PPP remain divided.

Indeed, the Senate election has removed the uncertainty surrounding the general elections and the second transition from one elected government to another. It bodes well for the democratic process in the country. But what happens over the next few weeks could change the political dynamics yet again. It is imperative to reform the system to establish the credibility of the elected institutions.

Allegations of horse-trading and the purchase of votes have tarnished the image of parliament. Instead of accusing others of wrongdoing, it is time for political leaders themselves to strengthen democracy within and outside their parties. Those purchasing their way to parliament and fugitives from the law cannot uphold the sanctity of the Constitution and democratic values.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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