It has remained unclear for many months whether Pakistan’s ever-weakening democratic setup will stand the test of time for the Senate elections in March. Several ministers have been seen highlighting the cons of technocratic setups without ever mentioning why they thought that they might not make it beyond February.
Despite the hype and hysteria, the Senate elections are now upon us. The only difference is that this time the players are far more willing to open up their pockets. The Upper House is up for sale and those of us who can’t afford a first-class airline ticket are not even supposed to think about buying our way in. Even those who can are at the bottom of the stairs – behind the jetsetters.
While the seats for the Upper House might be up for grabs in various parts of the country, the situation is akin to a Sunday bazaar when it comes to Fata. Everything is provided as a gift in Fata. Schools, hospitals, jobs, slots in the levies force – you name it. Until recently, even National Assembly seats were not earned on the basis of votes. Instead, a few maliks (chieftains) used to choose candidates for the seats. Seats in the National Assembly and the Senate were also provided as gifts to the tribal elite. It is still beyond our comprehension why Fata only has eight seats in the Upper House if the Senate has equal representation from all federating units. This is because they were gifts.
In 1975, a statutory regulatory order (SRO) was issued regarding the electoral college for Fata senators. The order stated that MNAs from Fata will poll one vote each and candidates who receive the most votes will be elected senators. But the Senate became a minting machine for MNAs from Fata. Instead of the whole region being an electoral college, these few men became one.
With the extension of adult franchise for the general elections in Fata in 1996, we would have expected that the procedure for electing (and selecting) senators would also have been changed. But it wasn’t. In fact, an executive order by the then president Pervez Musharraf made matters even worse.
The new procedure reduced the number of MNAs who would elect the eight senators even further. Around 11 MNAs were elected from Fata in 2013. According to the new method introduced by Musharraf, if six of the 11 MNAs joined hands, they could elect a total of eight senators during their tenure – which, for many, was difficult to grasp. Meanwhile, the entire National Assembly – all 332 members – have to elect four senators in Islamabad and six MNAs have to choose double the number of senators for another federal territory.
The fewer the number of people voting, the easier they are to buy out. To counter the notoriety that came with the Senate elections, MNAs from Fata came up with a cunning plan in 2015: keep the business at home instead of opening it up to the political giants. They struck a deal. Four out of the six MNAs nominated their brothers or cousins while the other two were ‘compensated’.
The deal also sought to elect a son and a brother of the remaining two MNAs in the 2018 elections while ‘compensating’ the other four. According to that deal struck in 2015, a former governor of KP and one retiring senator from Mohmand Agency are set to make it to the Senate next month. Sources say that they are already in the good books of former president Asif Ali Zardari. This leaves two of the Senate slots from Fata vacant. For the MNAs, it’s game season.
Everyone is holding meetings with members of the National Assembly from Fata – including those who would have never mattered otherwise – in an attempt to force their men in. The PML-N has decided to nominate Abbas Afridi, a former PPP minister and senator from Kohat, and Mirza Afridi, a tribal industrialist.
At the moment, five other MNAs are out of the group – three from the PML-N, one from the PTI and another from the JUI-F. While the PML-N thinks it will get nothing out of supporting its own MNAs, the Election Commission has given it a chance to make amendments to strengthen the electoral college and adopt the same procedure as it would to elect senators from Islamabad. After all, 332 members are always going to be far more difficult to buy than six.
If we hear Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari speak, we would surmise that they have become real democrats. But for observers and political workers like us (especially from Fata), they have so far been as good as their actions.
President Mamnoon has been made to issue yet another SRO endorsing horse-trading. Fata reforms have successfully been diverted to go beyond 2023 and it is not clear whether – deliberately or otherwise – the PPP has taken the same line on Fata as Nawaz Sharif. Farhatullah Babar is finding faults in the same bill that was tabled by Naveed Qamar and took opposition leader Khursheed Shah a complete boycott for more than a week to have approved by the lower house.
Pakistan is a strange country to learn politics in. We can never tell whether the two old parties are opposing or supporting each other while the PTI, the ANP and the MQM have conveniently remained silent.
Fata will come back to haunt us. It already has. Take a look at the empty space outside the National Press Club. What makes you think it won’t be parliament next?