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A system far from perfect

Accusations of elected members selling their votes to the highest bidder have emerged in many recent Senate elections but not at this scale nor with such a marked impact on party tallies

A system far from perfect

The Senate elections saw many upsets this time around and the upheaval came from all provinces. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) lost a seat in Punjab, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) suffered a blow in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was diminished in Sindh while the upheaval in Balochistan had started months before actual polling.

The results are striking. The same provincial assemblies that elected 18 PML-N senators in 2015 now returned 15 candidates while Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) staged the largest upset, increasing its previous win of eight candidates with victories on 12 seats.

PTI won one less seat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but compensated the loss by winning one in Punjab. MQM’s performance declined from winning four to one and the National Party (NP) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMap) were both reduced from three to two seats. Awami National Party (ANP) and Balochistan National Party – Mengal (BNP-M) were unable to hold on to their one seat each from previous elections and are now out of the Senate. The tally for independents doubled, rising from five to ten.

The Senate represents the federation in our governance system and is a crucial check against hegemony of the majority province. The system of election of senators is too important to be allowed to fall prey to the political expediencies of some short-sighted adventurers.

All these changes happened in a span of three years — despite the fact that the party composition of the provincial assemblies that elected the senators was unchanged, barring minor adjustments owing to by-elections.

This was not business as usual. Accusations of elected members selling their votes to the highest bidder have emerged in many recent Senate elections but not on this scale nor with such marked impact on party tallies. It has become undeniable that the complex formula for indirect Senate elections has hit a wall.

The single transferrable vote by each Senate elector is cast through secret ballot. Does this not mean the members are free to vote for whoever they wish, irrespective of their party’s preference? The design of the electoral system not only refuses to demand party loyalty from them, it actually guards against it.

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But this does not render the method unflawed. In the secret chamber where the electors stamp their preferences on the ballot paper, they have the choice of either following party directives or those of their buyer – also dubbed as the ‘voice of their conscience’. The secrecy of the ballot has thus become the main source of commoditisation of Senate votes.

There were incidents in the past when the electors took pictures of their marked ballots to later provide evidence to their parties or buyers of delivering on the promise. But phones are now disallowed in the polling area to ensure complete secrecy. This exposes the buyers of the votes to considerable risk as they have to rely on more traditional options for securing loyalty, such as oath taking from vote sellers on the Holy Book.

The foolproof secrecy also leaves the parties clueless about which of their members voted for whom. Many of them have now ordered internal inquiries and their experts are trying to unlock the names of defectors by applying reverse engineering techniques on the transferred votes in detailed Senate election results.

But if the system removes the secrecy element, forcing the electors to stick to their party’s choices, will we even need balloting? If parties are to win seats exactly proportionate to their strengths in the respective assemblies, then the system of election would be reduced to a rubber stamp party-list system that is being practised for the elections to reserved seats for women and minorities in the national and provincial assemblies.

This system is far from perfect. The reserved seats members elected through it are not considered legitimate representatives by the communities they stand to represent. More importantly, the reputation of this system is also not untainted and there have been allegations of people buying their way into the elected houses through it. The list system when combined with the realities of our political parties being weak institutions leads to concentration of power in one or a few hands within the parties which is as undesirable as the vote buying we now see in the indirect election system for the Senate.

The indirect elections or the usage of an electoral college to form representative houses is not new to Pakistan. It was first introduced in 1960 by General Ayub Khan as what was termed basic democracy. The country was divided into 40,000 micro constituencies with each having around 1,000 voters. The common voters elected one Basic Democrat each who then became the electoral college for the houses and the office of the President.

The system had come at the heels of stark failure of direct elections under the 1947-58 parliamentary democracy system which had thrown the country into an existential crisis. ‘Western’ democracy had failed on every count in the nascent state or so we were made to believe. It was considered unsuccessful in providing security and stability, besides failing to lay out a nation-building plan in the form of a constitution.

The narrative built around Ayub Khan’s indirect election system by official ideologues was that the common people are ignorant and illiterate and, thus, cannot be relied upon for important matters related to the existence and well-being of the country. This logic had buyers not only amongst the middle-classes of the country but also in the international arena as many accepted this as a transitory but necessary stage for a democracy in an underdeveloped country with a colonial past.

On ground, however, the system did not ensure good governance and instead promoted a patronage system where General Ayub would trade perks and privileges within the limited group of Basic Democrats to win legitimacy and longevity for his rule. The system was so high on corruption and so weak on delivery that it crumbled within a decade and the country had to return to direct elections and universal franchise.

Is this then the way forward for the Senate as well?

Our experience of basic democracy and the present system of elections to reserved seats for women and minorities tells us that in matters of representation, there are no shortcuts and nothing short of complete reliance on the direct verdict of the people will suffice.

The Senate represents the federation in our governance system and is a crucial check against hegemony of the majority province. The system of election of senators is too important to be allowed to fall prey to the political expediencies of some short-sighted adventurers.

There is a need to initiate a debate on a new system of elections for the Senate.

Tahir Mehdi

Tahir Mehdi
The author works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.

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