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A high stake game

Foretelling the gains and losses in the upcoming Senate election

A high stake game

Half the members of the Senate are due to retire soon and in their place 52 new Senators would be elected on March 3 for a six-year term from the federal capital, Islamabad, and the four provinces.

In the 104-member Upper House of Parliament, each province has 23 seats including 14 general, four each reserved for women and technocrats and one each for the minorities. Islamabad has four seats while the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) has eight. Unlike the provinces and the federal capital, there is no reserved seat for the women in Fata in the Senate and the National Assembly. The women in Fata lack representation not only in the parliament but also in every walk of life.

One of the main attractions of the Senate polls would be the contest between the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the former would try to gain majority in the House and get its nominee elected as the Senate chairman. The PPP, on the other hand, would strive to retain its upper hand in the Upper House of Parliament and seek election of its candidate as the new chairman of the Senate with help from its allies such as the Awami National Party (ANP), and possibly the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).

Its recent efforts to reconcile with the MQM and willingness to concede a Senate seat to the latter through seat-adjustment in Sindh Assembly appear to be geared towards the PPP goal of getting elected its nominee as the Senate chairman in place of Nayyar Hussain Bokhari, who too was PPP’s man and is retiring after completing his term.

The MQM could even return as the PPP’s coalition partner to rule Sindh because it has time and again joined and abandoned the provincial government due to Altaf Hussain’s mercurial nature and politics.

Despite its poor electoral performance in the May 2013 general election, the PPP has been able to play a significant role in politics due to its dominant position in the Senate and because it is ruling Sindh. It is set to win most of the Senate seats again from Sindh and this would help it to become almost evenly placed in comparison to the PML-N.

Due to the not-so-secret use of money by the wealthy candidates to buy votes of the legislators, the election for the Senate becomes a high-stake game in which the highest bidders have better chances of success.

The PML-N, which presently has 16 seats in the Senate but would be losing eight due to retirement of its existing Senators, could pick up 11 seats from its Punjab stronghold and a few from Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the federal capital. Its strength in the Senate could rise to 25 and its allies ranging from Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s JUI-F to the National Party of Hasil Bizenjo and Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch and Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) would join forces with it to attempt overtaking the PPP in the numbers game.

Whichever party emerges with the majority and elects its nominee as the Senate chairman, it is clear that it would face a strong opposition. The Senate would thus become a more lively and balanced legislature than the previous one which served as a citadel of the PPP and its allies for the past several years, including the last almost two years as the opposition stronghold against the PML-N-headed federal government.

The ANP would be one of the big losers as six out of its 12 Senators are retiring. Its defeat in the 2013 general election meant that it may not win any new seat in its former stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa if the opposition parties fail to put up joint candidates for the Senate polls. With only five MPAs and needing 17 votes to get its candidate elected as Senator on a general seat, it would have concluded a seat-adjustment agreement with the PML-N, JUI-F, PPP and Aftab Sherpao’s QWP to have any chance of winning a Senate seat. The QWP has much better chances of winning a Senate seat as it has 10 MPAs in the province and has fielded a wealthy candidate, former Senator Ammar Ahmad Khan who joined the party recently, to ‘procure’ the remaining votes needed to achieve victory.

The JUI-F could retain its existing position in the Senate. It has presently six Senators and three are retiring, but it has bright chances of winning three seats in the coming polls. The National Party and PMAP too are poised to improve their representation in the Senate.

The PTI would for the first time gain entry in the Senate, primarily due to its strong representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. It has 56 members in the assembly and together with its coalition partners, Jamaat-i-Islami and the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad Pakistan (AJIP) the PTI could pick up most of the Senate seats. However, money has always played a party in the Senate polls in the province and most of the moneyed candidates contesting as independents or those put up by other parties are eyeing votes from the mostly young, inexperienced and somewhat indisciplined PTI MPAs. The existence of the so-called ‘like-minded’ group of dissident MPAs in the PTI and the differences over the award of the tickets for the Senate election could create problems for the party as Imran Khan is unlikely to tolerate those who don’t vote for PTI candidates.

The election for the Senate is an important electoral exercise in the country, but it doesn’t create the excitement that happens during the general elections because the common voters don’t get to vote for electing the Senators.

However, those who are able to vote are certainly excited as they are courted and feted by the candidates for the Senate and given importance by the leadership of the political parties to which they belong. Due to the not-so-secret use of money by the wealthy candidates to buy votes of the legislators, the election for the Senate becomes a high-stake game in which the highest bidders have better chances of success.

In fact, the expected sale and purchase of votes has prompted a number of parties such as the PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami to demand holding of the Senate election through open instead of secret voting. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan has made it clear that under the electoral laws the polling must be held through secret ballot. Imran Khan even claimed that offers of more than Rs20 million for a vote by the Senate candidates were being made to the members of the provincial assembly.

The JI head Sirajul Haq, who is also a candidate for the Senate from his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, called for joint efforts by all the political parties to prevent horse-trading in the forthcoming polls. Imran Khan and Sirajul Haq have reasons to be concerned about the sale of votes in the Senate polls as the former’s MPAs are being lured by wealthy candidates while the latter’s JI has only eight lawmakers in the provincial assembly and he needs the PTI votes to be elected as the Senator.

Horse-trading would certainly be witnessed as in the past in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Fata because the party positions are fairly clear in Punjab and Sindh due to the dominance of the PML-N and PPP, respectively, in the two provinces. In Fata, 11 MNAs (one seat is vacant) would get to elect four members of the Senate and have, therefore, the best chances of demanding a high rate for their votes.

It is such sale and purchase of votes that damages the credibility of the elections, weakens democracy and affects the image of the Senate, which otherwise has a galaxy of top professionals and politicians as members and which has often been able to perform its primary role of protecting the interest of the provinces, particularly of the smaller ones including Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Rahimullah Yusufzai

rahimullah yusufzai
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]

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