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Flawed senate poll and the constitutional facade

Published 18 Apr, 2018 10:15pm
Composition by Rohail Safdar
Composition by Rohail Safdar

The noise over horse-trading and the sale/purchase of votes during the latest Senate elections was nothing new. In almost every Senate election candidates without any support in a provincial assembly, but carrying stacks of cash in briefcases, have marched victoriously into the Upper House of Parliament. This time around nothing else was discussed. 

For instance, there was no public debate on the possibility of direct elections to the Senate. The problems of direct election of senators and how this would strengthen the democratic basis of the polity was also not debated.

These elections have also drawn attention to some anomalies in the electoral procedure though there has been no debate on this either. 

The eight senators from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) are elected by 12 members of the National Assembly from Fata. This means their election happens on an extremely narrow franchise. Furthermore, the Senate seats are not distributed among the seven tribal agencies that constitute Fata and it is possible that a majority of the seats, or even all of them, may be won by candidates belonging to one or two agencies while the rest of the agencies may have no representation in the Upper House.

 What will be the impact on the method of electing Fata representatives to the Senate once the territory is brought into the mainstream? If Fata is constituted into a separate province it will acquire 23 seats in the Senate like any other province and the strength of the house will increase from 104 to 119. But if Fata is merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it will get only a small share of the 23 seats allocated to the enlarged province.

Zafarullah Khan, executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services, has pointed out the confusion created by the addition of reserved seats in the Senate. According to Article 59 (2) of the constitution, members of the Senate are elected on the basis of proportional representation by a single transferable vote. This method is not followed for the election from each province of four technocrats, four women candidates and one non-Muslim citizen. These nine seats can be grabbed by a party having a simple majority in a provincial assembly. Similarly, the four Senate seats allocated to Islamabad can be captured by the party having a majority in the National Assembly. Obviously, a way needs to be found to bring all elections to the Senate into harmony with the condition laid down in Article 59 (2).

The Senate has unique possibilities for protecting the rights of the federating units. No amendment to the constitution is possible unless it is backed in the upper chamber by three provinces. Have the people been made aware of the Senate’s role in guarding the sanctity of the constitution and what else it can do? The Senate elections also confirmed the establishment’s strategy of operating within the constitutional façade instead of demolishing the basic institutions of parliamentary democracy or holding them in abeyance. There is some politics behind it.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) had decided against its option to call for a general election when the Panama case against Nawaz Sharif started because it hoped to secure a majority in the Senate in the March 2018 elections. The establishment wanted to thwart that but rejected the idea of scuttling the Senate elections and decided, instead, to ensure positive results. The change of government in Balochistan now seems to have been the first part of the two-act play.

The Senate elections should be taken as a warning for the mainstream political parties. The appearance of renegades from various parties in the garb of independent members has ended the political parties’ hegemony over Balochistan politics as well as their dominant role in the Senate.

Islamabad’s political pundits are wondering whether this strategy could be used in the coming general election, which is likely to be held on schedule despite the mischief being planned by game spoilers. If a sizeable group of renegades from political parties can be helped to win National Assembly seats then one should be prepared to see an independent as the next prime minister. The group of independent members might force the so-called mainstream parties to abandon their dreams of heading the next government.

The writer is a senior journalist and human rights activist.

This was originally published in the April 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.