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Opinion

March 8, 2018
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Senate elections and timely warnings

Opinion

March 8, 2018

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The upshot of the Senate elections was quite interestingly summed up by someone on social media as: “The success of Ms Krishna Kohli, a Dalit and once an enslaved woman from Thar, and Lal Din’s victory on PPP tickets is the victory of Pakistani-hood (Pakistaniat) and the defeat of Maulana Samiul Haq, the mentor of [the] Taliban, is somehow a rejection of Takfeeriat”. The unfortunate part is that almost all parties are crying foul about horse-trading by others, while forgetting their own undue marginal bonuses in a rather small pie.

The encouraging aspect of the Senate elections is that yet another milestone in the next democratic transition has been achieved, despite deep apprehensions due to the hijacking of the PML-N’s parliamentary party in the Balochistan Assembly and the disenfranchisement of the Nawaz League as a party in a crucial Upper House election. The aggrieved party was quick to blame “anonymous callers” for the parliamentary coup in Balochistan, and for the Senate election the Supreme Court judgment that retrospectively terminated all decisions of the PML-N chief. Such are the fierce institutional clashes going on between the elected and non-elected institutions that the democratic transition continues to tread an unpredictable path in which nobody is sure if the general elections will even be held as scheduled.

The most aggrieved – and yet successful – party in this election was certainly the PML-N, which was thrown out of the contest as a party and its candidates and voting members freed from the party mandate and symbol. We had seen this in the past too when both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were forced to either change the names or heads of their parties. For example, the PPP became the PPP-Parliamentarian and BB was replaced by Makhdoom Amin Fahim as chairperson of the party. Likewise, Nawaz Sharif was replaced under the changes brought by General Musharraf in the Political Parties Order. The PPP also had to change its party symbol from the sword to the arrow during the repressive Zia regime. For the PML-N, this current situation must have been a reminder of the non-party elections held during Gen Zia’s tyranny that gave birth to a party that now Nawaz Sharif leads – in defiance of the same establishment that brought him into politics as an alternative to the Bhuttos.

The PML-N has emerged as the largest group in the Senate, even though it lost one seat to Chaudhry Sarwar of the PTI, who benefitted from the cleavages in the Punjab PML-N and is alleged to have wooed others with monetary glitter. The PML-N, however, was able to take revenge by grabbing two seats of the PTI’s allies – Qaumi Watan Party and Samiul Haq. The conduct of the moral brigade of a divided PTI in KP was rather shameful, with its MPAs settling scores with CM Khattak and allegedly making some good fortunes.

The greatest loser in all this was the MQM, primarily due to its splits and infighting, which benefited both the PPP and the Functional League on one seat each. The success of the so-called independents from Balochistan and business-as-usual in Fata seemed to have been the most glaring results. Interestingly, Asif Ali Zardari played his cards quite cunningly while benefiting from the cleavages in the MQM, PTI and an open-ended game in Balochistan. The election of seven senators is being seen as the result of either political manipulations or excessive use of unfair means.

The problem of horse-trading is not as big as is being made out by a section of the media and rival politicians, but is due to a mode of elections based on a single transferable vote. The current mode of Senate elections must be replaced with the list-system of proportional representation on the basis of votes cast in favour of a party in a province.

The upsets that we witnessed are essentially either due to intra-party squabbling, change of alignments before the general elections or simply sale of votes by some. Instead of blaming others while indulging in malpractices, the affected parties must first remove skeletons from their own cupboards. If both the PML-N and the PPP followed the Charter of Democracy – which both have violated – the prestige of the Upper House as a custodian of the federation could have been saved.

The outgoing chairman of the Senate, Raza Rabbani, is respected and admired across all divides as a role model, and could become a consensus candidate to spare the chairman’s election from the same kind of dirt that affected the Senate elections. Primarily, it is the question of the legitimacy of the Senate that is at stake. The prestigious offices of the speaker of the National Assembly and chairman of the Senate should be considered above party politics, and must be above partisan politics as custodians of the two houses of parliament. Even in the last days in the office of chairman, Rabbani held the prestige and privilege of parliament by raising his voice in defence of “internal proceedings” of parliament in terms of Article 69 of the constitution, which the superior judiciary is seen to be inclined to step over. But Rabbani is not being considered by Zardari – due to the latter’s Machiavellian machinations.

Almost in tandem with the Senate chairman, Senator Farhatullah Babar gave an exceptionally statesmanlike parting speech in the Senate that not only identified principal threats to the republic, but also set an immediate and mid-term agenda for parliament which is struggling for its due role as the real sovereign and representative of the people. Senator Babar cautioned the superior judiciary against reading the constitution expeditiously, instead of what was meant by the framers. He warned that the next election might become a referendum on the judiciary.

Pointing to what he called the “state within state” and the parallel workings of the de-jure and de-facto authorities of the state, which is perpetuating conflict between the institutions, Babar called upon parliament to resolve the conflict by retrieving its currently undermined sovereignty. Parliament must come forward to defend the integrity of the country by safeguarding the 18th Amendment, which if undermined might lead to a situation when the smaller provinces may demand equal representation in the Lower House on the principle of parity used by Punjab against the then East Pakistan.

Not sparing his own party, Babar regretted that parliament failed to bring about legislation for even-handed accountability of all. His overall emphasis was on bringing an end to the dichotomy of a bipolar state where de-facto powers prevail over de-jure authorities (who are also the victims of one-sided accountability). Everybody should ponder over this wise prescription of the retiring senator. In a reversal of roles, the PPP has distanced itself from his statement while the PML-N may find itself close to the agenda he has so clearly defined and which Sharif is yet to elaborate.

The writer is a senior journalist. Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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