The PML-N had long marked 2018 on the calendar as the year it would finally get control of both houses of parliament. Its massive victory in the 2013 general elections had all but ensured a majority in the Upper House. The mistake the party made was that it failed to contend with the unpredictability of Pakistani politics. In a surprise majority vote for chairman and vice chairman of the Senate, Sadiq Sajrani and Saleem Mandviwallah – both of whom were put up by the joint opposition – were able to defeat the PML-N candidates. Sanjrani, from Balochistan, is the first Senate chairman from that province to hold office. This, however, sadly becomes inconsequential given that many are seeing the Senate election as the beginning of an uglier politics in Pakistan.
Sanjrani, an independent, had been backed by the PPP, which holds 20 seats in the Senate, the PTI, with 13 seats and the MQM-P with 5. The PML-N with the majority 33 seats in the Senate had nominated Raja Zafarul Haq as its candidate and with a backing of allies including the NP, PkMAP, PML-F and ANP in theory had enough votes to place him in the post of chairman. Theory and practice are however quite different these days in our politics. The PPP made clear what direction it was going to take when Asif Zardari rejected Nawaz Sharif’s suggestion to retain Raza Rabbani as a consensus chairman, and proceeded to accuse Rabbani of supposedly turning a blind eye to Nawaz’s alleged violations of the constitution. As recently as Friday, Imran Khan said joining hands with the PPP would essentially mean contradicting 22 years of campaigning against corruption. He then disingenuously said his party senators would vote for an independent candidate from Balochistan – essentially an alliance with the PPP in deed if not words. The PML-N is sure to condemn what it believes to be an engineered outcome. The removal of the chief minister in Balochistan – which the PML-N feels was instigated by the PPP and other forces – cost it crucial Senate votes from the province. The Supreme Court decision nullifying Nawaz Sharif’s decisions as party chief after his disqualification last year created a further opening for defections as candidates nominated by the PML-N had to run as independents. Combine all this with serious allegations of horse-trading in the Senate elections and to many it would seem the PML-N does have reason to be doubtful about the way the entire Senate elections process was carried out.
When it comes to matters of governance, there shouldn’t be too much of a change in the near future. The PML-N can still pass legislation through joint sittings of parliament even if it is unable to command a majority in the Senate. What is most ominous about the vote for chairman and vice chairman is the signals it sends. Should we expect a similar scene where the voters’ right can be seen to be ignored? If the number of votes no longer determine who is to be elected, has a dangerous precedent been set ahead of a general election? Manoeuvring the Senate vote required the PTI and PPP to join hands in support of a common candidate. Such cooperation between two parties that have always been opposed to each other may be difficult to sustain. The previously unthinkable has now become realistic and all bets are off about the direction our politics will take in the crucial coming months.