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Rearranging the Upper House

Senate elections 2018 will be remembered in history for allegations of rampant horse-trading in all four provincial assemblies. A detailed account of the electioneering process and potential alliances that will shape the upper house as well as the country’s politics

Rearranging the Upper House

Someone from the power corridors of Islamabad seems to have floated the idea of Chief Minister Balochistan, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo acting as a bridge between PTI and PPP, the two major blocks in the Senate, whose leaders are not willing to come out in the open and join hands for the elections of chairman Senate. PTI leadership considers it’s particularly damaging for its prospects in 2018 parliamentary elections to hobnob with the “corrupt” PPP leadership months before the elections. Similarly, PPP is also not too pleased to shake hands, publicly, with someone who has openly been maligning its leadership.

So the proposal of Chief Minister Balochistan — with six senators in his pocket and spearheading the idea of giving the Senate’s top slot to the deprived province — acting as a bridge between PPP and PTI was put forward by someone in the power corridors. Imran Khan seemed too happy with the idea. PTI chairman announced that he had handed over his party’s 12 senators to Balochistan Chief Minister Bizenjo and authorised him to hold negotiations with other parties, considering them a block of 20 senators.

However this block of 20 senators will be of no use if it doesn’t join hands with another block of 21 senators belonging to PPP. Only in such a scenario this combination of PPP, PTI and independents from Balochistan would be able to pose a challenge to the emerging group led by ruling Muslim League with its alliance from number of smaller parties in senate. PML-N meanwhile is claiming the support of JI, ANP, JUI-F, PML-F and Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami party.

On their part, smaller parties like MQM are determined to get something concrete in the form of federal or provincial development projects and improvement in human rights conditions in Karachi, in return for their five votes.

However, the importance of Chief Minister Balochistan could not be underestimated in the emerging situation. Former President Zardari also met the independents from Balochistan in Balochistan house in Islamabad, where they are now residing after arriving in Islamabad under the leadership of CM Balochistan.

Sensing the emergence of anti-PML-N block under the leadership of CM, Balochistan, the ruling Muslim League leadership is keeping its distance from sthe ix senators from Balochistan.

For about three months before the latest Senate elections took place on March 3, rumours doing the rounds in the capital held that the powers-that-be would not allow the ruling party to consolidate its position in the upper house of the parliament. It was feared the PML-N would disintegrate, the political process got disrupted and Senate elections postponed for an indefinite period.

Read also: A system far from perfect

Senior journalist, Nusrat Javeed, says such rumours abound because people think largely in terms of the past. “In the past governments have been disrupted before the Senate elections as at that time there was article 58(2)(b) in the Constitution [that allowed the president to dissolve the assemblies]. Now we may not have that article but we have other factors that can disrupt the process like judicial activism.”

Senate elections 2018 will be remembered in history for allegations of rampant horse-trading in all four provincial assemblies — the primary electoral college for the Senate. PPP got its senators elected from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh assemblies by relying on support of members who do not belong to the party, whereas PTI got at least one senator elected from Punjab Assembly which was above its due share in that assembly. The ruling Muslim League has not benefited directly in terms of seats but all three parties are being accused of having used money and other means to buy the MPAs from their own and other parties as well as independents.

On March 3, 2018, the national and four provincial assemblies elected 52 senators. But the allegations of horse-trading are still in the air regarding the election outcome for the offices of chairman and deputy chairman to be held on March 12.

The ruling PML-N has emerged as the single largest party in the Senate with 33 seats, whereas PPP and PTI are now the second and third largest parties with 21 and 12 seats respectively.

PTI has vowed that it will not allow the PML-N candidate to emerge victorious in the elections for chairman and deputy chairman. This can possibly bring PPP and PTI together in bringing compromise candidates for both the chairman and deputy chairman’s seats. Thus, two groups with equal numbers of votes — 33 — will emerge in the house, making the six independents from Balochistan and eight independents from FATA the most sought-after personalities in the election campaign. The smaller parties are also important in this election campaign but they are most likely to go with their old allies.

Some analysts think there was one way the blackmailing power of smaller parties and independents could have been drastically reduced; if the two major parties — PMLN and PPP — had reached an agreement on putting up joint candidates. This appeared to be an impossibility from the very beginning, “There is no possibility of two major parties joining hands and making smaller parties irrelevant at this point of time,” says Javeed who is closely observing the electioneering process in Islamabad. “Vicious electioneering is taking place in Islamabad. Money and other benefits, perks, privileges are playing a role in the chairman’s elections.”

Politically speaking, there were signs that ‘hidden forces’ were working on a plan to reduce PML-N’s majority in the upper house after the fall of the PML-N led coalition government in Balochistan, which has deprived the ruling party of at least five senators.

Secondly, political pundits were predicting that these elections will see widespread use of cash and that the MPAs in four provincial assemblies will vote outside party discipline in large numbers. This proved to be partially correct as the MQM MPAs in Sindh Assembly and PTI MPAs in KP assembly did vote outside the party discipline in large numbers.

It is learnt that when PPP leaders approached the six independent senators-elect from Balochistan for their support, they retorted that they should be given either the office of chairman or deputy chairman. This indicates the significance of these six votes.

Party insiders claim that Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly made it clear to his party’s central leadership that he considers the Senate chairmanship crucial for the victory of his party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, “It is a matter of life and death for him and the party to get their chairman elected,” says a party member. The elder Sharif also thinks that losing the  elections for chairman will dent the victorious image of the party “which is considered so vital to its success in the forthcoming general elections”.

The party’s winning spree in the by-elections, including the one in Lodhran, continued when “enemies of the party” were proved wrong in their predictions that the party would disintegrate before the Senate elections. “Nawaz Sharif thinks that for the preservation of this image it is extremely crucial to win the Senate chairman office,” says a senior leader of the party.

Sources say that Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman of JUI-F came up with the proposal that both PPP and PML-N should agree on the candidature of the incumbent chairman senate, Raza Rabbani. This proposal was discussed and agreed upon in a meeting of PML-N and allied parties in the Senate, including National Party, Pukhtunkhawa Milli Awami Party and JUI-F. Sharif already has a soft corner for Raza Rabbani, primarily because of the latter’s anti-establishment public assertions that reinforce Sharif’s narrative.

On the other hand, Fazl-ur-Rehman has a political interest in keeping his main rival in Khyber Pukhtunkhawa, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf insulated from the established political parties. And PPP and PTI joining hands for chairman elections would bring the latter out of its isolation.

Till the filing of this report, on Thursday March 8, none of the major parties could claim to enjoy the support of enough smaller parties to secure the required number of votes for the election of its own candidate as chairman and deputy chairman of Senate. The ruling Muslim League, however, is facing an uphill task in putting together a viable coalition of smaller parties and independents that can win it the chairmanship, primarily because of the apparently anti-establishment narrative adopted by Nawaz Sharif.

Political analysts say that many of the smaller parties and independents have historically been inclined towards the military establishment and/or forms of state machinery, which make them particularly vulnerable to influence from the military establishment. These parties and independents include MQM, which has five votes, Jamaat-e-Islami with two votes, PML-F with one vote and eight independent senators from FATA. Although the establishment has so far shown no sign that it is actively trying to control the mechanics of the chairman’s elections, many in the PML-N camp think otherwise.

On their part, smaller parties like MQM are determined to get something concrete in the form of federal or provincial development projects and improvement in human rights conditions in Karachi, in return for their five votes. “We will be negotiating for something concrete for Karachi in return for our five votes,” says Nasreen Jalil of MQM. She says that no formal negotiations have started with any political party so far. “We have not asked for any office of deputy or chairman Senate. We can even abstain from voting because we think that if this process has nothing to offer for Karachi, we’d better abstain.”

Some political observers in Islamabad believe that Zardari is trying to mend fences with the military establishment; hence his rejection of the nomination of Raza Rabbani. They also say that the alliances that suit the parties in the general elections will influence their decision regarding the chairman’s elections.

Someone from the power corridors of Islamabad seems to have floated the idea of Chief Minister Balochistan, Abdul Quddus Bizenjo acting as a bridge between PTI and PPP, the two major blocks in the Senate, whose leaders are not willing to come out in the open and join hands for the elections of chairman Senate. PTI leadership considers it’s particularly damaging for its prospects in 2018 parliamentary elections to hobnob with the “corrupt” PPP leadership months before the elections. Similarly, PPP is also not too pleased to shake hands, publicly, with someone who has openly been maligning its leadership.

So the proposal of Chief Minister Balochistan — with six senators in his pocket and spearheading the idea of giving the Senate’s top slot to the deprived province — acting as a bridge between PPP and PTI was put forward by someone in the power corridors. Imran Khan seemed too happy with the idea. PTI chairman announced that he had handed over his party’s 12 senators to Balochistan Chief Minister Bizenjo and authorised him to hold negotiations with other parties, considering them a block of 20 senators.

However this block of 20 senators will be of no use if it doesn’t join hands with another block of 21 senators belonging to PPP. Only in such a scenario this combination of PPP, PTI and independents from Balochistan would be able to pose a challenge to the emerging group led by ruling Muslim League with its alliance from number of smaller parties in senate. PML-N meanwhile is claiming the support of JI, ANP, JUI-F, PML-F and Pukhtunkhwa Milli Awami party.

However, the importance of Chief Minister Balochistan could not be underestimated in the emerging situation. Former President Zardari also met the independents from Balochistan in Balochistan house in Islamabad, where they are now residing after arriving in Islamabad under the leadership of CM Balochistan.

Sensing the emergence of anti-PML-N block under the leadership of CM, Balochistan, the ruling Muslim League leadership is keeping its distance from sthe ix senators from Balochistan.

Despite the hectic election campaign, there are still some notable fence-sitters who have not made any decision regarding the chairman’s election at least till the filing of this report. Dr Jehanzeb Jamaldini, of Balochistan National Party tells this scribe that he is undecided so far. Similarly, Sitara Ayaz, the only senator from ANP, says that she still has not received any instruction from the party leadership. JI senators also say that they have not taken any decision.

After the chairman’s elections, the question that is likely to haunt this Senate is to determine how the fractured house will function. President PILDAT, Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, is of the opinion that “the battle-lines drawn in the present election for chairman and deputy chairman have very little chance of becoming a permanent feature of the Senate; still the law making will still be very difficult in this fractured house. It will be extremely difficult if PTI comes to power in the wake of 2018 general elections”. PTI has only 12 seats in the Senate.

This is a slightly edited and updated version of the article that appeared in the print version

Umer Farooq

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Umer Farooq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He specializes in writing on politics, foreign policy and security issues.

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