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Opinion

January 26, 2015

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Power, people and the Senate

In about six weeks, elections will be held to fill half the seats in the Senate that are being vacated by members who will be retiring on March 11 after completing their six-year term. But the Pakistani public will have no say in deciding who sits in the Senate.
Formally, that decision will be taken by the elected MPAs for the four provinces and by elected MNAs for Fata and the capital territory, but in reality the composition of the 52-member contingent that will enter the Senate in March will be determined very largely by the half a dozen or so party heads who will be granting party tickets for the election and who will use this power to reward or buy loyalty and consolidate personal or dynastic power.
Unnoticed by the public, the election campaign for the Senate is already well underway. It is only that the race between the candidates is not to win favour with the public but to curry favour with the party heads. The competition is cut-throat. Aspiring senators are already queuing up to seek the blessing of the party leadership in Raiwind, Bilawal House, Bani Gala and elsewhere, recounting previous services rendered and swearing future allegiance. Also, if the past is any guide, a lot of money is changing hands in the backrooms of the power brokers.
Candidates for election to the national and provincial assemblies also vie for party tickets but it is ultimately the voter who decides whether they get elected. To the contrary, those seeking election to the Senate are in the happy position of not having to worry at all about the opinion of the voters. If they get the party ticket, they are automatically assured of the votes of the MPAs and MNAs from the party and if they get elected, they are indebted mainly to the party boss. It is no wonder that once elected, they are completely subservient to him and act first and foremost as his henchmen.
A house whose members owe their position mainly to selection by party heads clearly cannot claim to be

representative of the people. But there is also another reason for the Senate’s democratic deficit. It lies in the time lag between the election of the assemblies which form the electoral college and the staggered elections of the Senate with three-yearly intervals.
Because of this time lag, the party-wise distribution of seats among the 52 members of the Senate who will be elected this March will reflect the verdict given by the electorate two years ago in May 2013 and these members will serve till 2021, well after the assemblies which elected them have become history. Again, the party affiliations of the 52 members of the Senate who will be elected at the next three-yearly election in 2018 will also reflect the choices made by the voters five years earlier in 2013 and these members will continue to serve till 2024, that is even after the assemblies to be elected in 2018 have served their full term.
If instead of the present system of staggered elections, the members of the Senate were to be freshly elected by the assemblies immediately after their own election, there might still be some plausibility in the claim that the composition of the Senate reflects the political choices made by the electorate. But that would not change the fact that the members of the Senate are handpicked by the party heads for their personal loyalty and for their subservience. Most of them would stand no chance of winning a direct election and many have actually entered the Senate after having failed to win a seat in the National Assembly.
The true function of the Senate, as conceived in 1973 by the framers of the constitution, was to give the smaller federating units their due voice in legislative matters and to act as a check on the National Assembly, in which Punjab, the largest province, has more than half of the seats. Today, however, it is clear that the main function the Senate actually performs is very different. It is to strengthen the control of the party heads, and through them of the country’s ruling cliques, over the political system.
If it is broke, the saying goes, fix it. Fixing the way the Senate is elected is a task that falls squarely within the broad terms of reference of the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reform but the panel has not even touched this issue. This is hardly surprising, considering that the committee is mainly interested in preventing reform than promoting it. But the question of Senate reform will not disappear just because it is inconvenient for our political establishment.
There are three main features of the way the Senate is elected: (a) indirect election by members of the provincial legislatures; (b) proportional representation through single transferrable vote (STV); and (c) staggered elections. All these features, incidentally, were taken from the model of the Council of States of India, the upper chamber of the Parliament of that country.
Some changes were made by Ziaul Haq through the Revival of the Constitution Order in 1985 and by Zardari through the 18th Amendment in 2010. The original constitution had provided for a four-year term. Zia raised it to six years and introduced reserved seats for ‘technocrats’ and ulema. The 18th Amendment makes provision for four seats reserved for non-Muslims.
After the rather unhappy experience of four decades with the way the Senate is elected, the time is ripe for a comprehensive review.
The most obvious defect is that the members of the Senate are indirectly elected. Indirect elections were introduced by Ayub Khan for the National Assembly in the 1962 constitution. That system was discarded in 1970 after nation-wide agitation but was reintroduced under the 1973 constitution for the Senate. Since the electoral college for the election of senators is very small, it is very easy to control the outcome.
The result is that all senators are well-connected individuals from the privileged sections of society. For the most part, they have been handpicked by the respective party head. The upper house has therefore, for all intents and purposes, become a nominated chamber devoid of any genuinely representative character. This system has also further entrenched the curse of dynastic rule. To liberate the country from this scourge and to make the upper house truly representative, it is essential that its members should be directly elected.
Second, if direct elections are introduced for the Senate, the question that will arise is: which voting system should be adopted? The first-past-the-post system will be inappropriate for all those reasons for which it is unsuited for election to the National Assembly. Its main defect is that it favours the larger parties while penalising the smaller ones, especially those whose support is thinly spread over a wide area. As a result, it leaves a large number of disgruntled parties who rightly feel that they are being unjustly excluded from the parliamentary process.
What Pakistan needs instead is an inclusive system in which all parties, especially the smaller ones, feel that they too can make themselves heard. This would only be possible if we adopt a system of proportional representation for the Senate, as for the National and Provincial Assemblies.
Third, the six-year term for senators which was introduced by Zia is too long. Zia took this step as part of a larger plan to pack the Senate with people who were personally loyal to him including the so-called ‘technocrats’ and ulema, give them a long six-year term, and then use the Senate as a check on the National Assembly should it fall under the control of PPP. There is no reason to keep the six-year term introduced by a discredited military dictator. It should be reduced to four or five years.
Fourth, there is no justification for special seats for ‘technocrats, including ulema’. Parliament represents the people of the country as a whole, not special interests, classes or groups. Therefore, no preferential treatment should be given to any of them.
The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service.
Email: [email protected]

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