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PPP accepts low-key post to be pro-establishment

ISLAMABAD: PPP's announcement to support independent senator from Balochistan, Sadiq Sanjarani, as Senate chairman paves way for a fiercely-contested election on Monday where each vote will count.

So as the situation stand on this day, it is the PML-N and allies versus PTI-PPP and rest of the anti-Sharif camp. As a result, the Upper House of Parliament, known for its debates, could also get transformed into a politically charged place in the days to come. The Senate chairman/deputy chairman election on Monday (today) would also prove the most closely contested till date. Now Fata and MQM senators hold the key for success of any camp – one led by former premier Nawaz Sharif and the other led by Asif Ali Zardari with PTI and Imran Khan as virtual but significant sidekicks.

PML-N’s patient, all day wait on Sunday, for Raza Rabbani’s next-to-impossible nomination as Senate chairman candidate, however, proved a potent political move, tricky for the otherwise politically wise PPP supremo Asif Zardari to handle. Till Sunday night, despite muted efforts by leading PPP leaders to convince Zardari to agree to Raza Rabbani’s candidature as the Senate chairman, the effort didn’t prove fruitful. The PPP, in its quest to defeat the PML-N and align itself on the right side of the establishment, accepted the deputy chairman's slot for itself, doling out the chairman slot candidature to Sadiq Sanjarani, an independent from Baluchistan.

So as Monday dawns, sans Rabbani’s nomination, PML-N is all set to nominate Mir Hasil Bizenjo as its candidate for Senate chairman. Nawaz Sharif recently proposing PPP’s Raza Rabbani’s reelection as Senate chairman proved an ace political move that forced Asif Zardari to offer an unwarranted knee jerk reaction.

It proved the moment when the whole political chessboard got rearranged, the number game jolted. Some political observers felt Zardari overreacted at a time when he needed to play it cool, thus risked the political game he had carefully built till this day. Rest of the damage was done when the PTI chief Imran Khan refused to accept the PPP nominee as Senate chairman and favoured an independent candidate from Balochistan province. As per the latest scheme of things, Imran did agree to support a panel with the PPP man as deputy chairman. Interestingly, Mr Sadiq Sanjarani, elected recently as Senator, is said to be close to Asif Zardari who worked hard in the background for former’s election as Senator.

The PML-N camp now commands the support of 33 of its senators, plus five National Party, five PKMAP senators, one BNP-M, four JUI-F, three Fata senators. If one MQM-P senator, one ANP senator are on its side, they make it to barely to 53 senators required. The MQM and at least two FATA Senators are going through wait and see. The three yet undecided Jamaat-e-Islami members can prove crucial too.

The PPP has the strength of 20 members, combined with 12 of PTI, seven from Baluchistan. They are working hard to secure three senators of MQM-Bahadurabad and five Fata senators. They still need the support of five members as they stand at a figure of 48-49 till the filing of this report.

So why did PML-N choose an ally in Mir Hasil Bizenjo for the top slot of Senate chairman? Firstly, to get even with the PTI and like-minded camp who were demanding the top Senate slot for a smaller province like Balochistan. Interestingly, most of the independent senators from Balochistan were elected by the PML-N rebels who had not only revolted against the party chief minister but also forced him to resign in the wake of a no-confidence motion in January. Then, Bizenjo and his party practice Baloch nationalistic politics, but are closer to the mainstream, sometimes acting as a defence against separatist tendencies in the troubled province. A political ally of the PML-N for around a decade now, Bizenjo enjoys cordial relations with Pakhtun nationalists like Mahmood Khan Achakzai – both were coalition partners with the PML-N till recently. Then, Bizenjo is a veteran politician.

For the last one decade or so, he was happily aligned with PML-N, and reaping windfall benefits as a result. Until recently, his party was a coalition partner with PML-N in Balochistan where they enjoyed provincial ministries hand in hand with PKMAP. National Party got the prized slot of Balochistan chief minister from 2013 to 2015 for half tenure after agreement with PML-N and PKMAP, and its chief minister Dr Abdul Malik Baloch ruled the province. Bizenjo has been returning to the National Assembly since 1990. In 2009, he got elected to the Senate, and again in 2015 for a term of six years.

With Bizenjo in place, PML-N and Nawaz Sharif would be in a comfortable place as far as issue and legislation process in the Senate was concerned. Same goes for political narrative, as Bizenjo firmly backs Nawaz’s agenda of empowering democratic institutions against the powerful establishment and an assertive, proactive judiciary. On the other hand, Mr Sanjarani is a little known figure. At the moment, he is part and parcel of the group of independent candidates from Balochistan – most of them got successful for their pro-establishment, anti-Sharif streak. His elevation to the top Senate slot could see some political fireworks in terms of debate, legislation. Otherwise, a settled, sober upper house of Parliament could become politically charged in the wake of charged political atmosphere.

An outright blunt rejection of Raza Rabbani’s candidature as Senate chairman could actually cost the PPP a defeat. A consensus Rabbani candidature could have been an ethical and moral victory for the PPP, which was under attack from all corners for allegedly promoting vote buying in the Senate elections especially KPK, Sindh. So ego of the PPP supremo could cost the party a position which it could secure without much effort had Rabbani been the candidate. But a closely contested election on Monday, and a win could further Zardari’s plan to become a decisive force in the post 2018 elections scenario and government formation in case of a hung parliament.

As of now, PPP agreed to a less prominent deputy chairman slot and sided with the pro establishment group and deliberately kept a safe distance from Nawaz Sharif’s politics with an anti-establishment streak.

Zardari seemed overjoyed when Balochistan chief minister easily handed him over the PTI senators Imran had put to the disposal of the chief minister. The PTI top leaders could not digest it. They protested to Imran that such a walkover to the PPP would cost them dearly. Assessing an imminent political fallout of yet another immature political move, Imran announced not to support the PPP candidate for the top Senate slot and instead support a candidate from Balochistan, and deputy chairman candidate from Fata.

So why did PPP lose this easy chance to secure the top Senate slot? Some party insiders feel Asif Zardari is actually aligning himself in the pro-establishment camp to make the party’s chances in the 2018 elections brighter. For this, he needed to distance himself from the PML-N and come close to PTI

So PPP aims at general elections 2018, mindful that a coalition with PTI through some third political force could not be ruled out in that scenario.

A difficult man to handle, Rabbani is a towering parliamentarian who was instrumental in coming up with the 18th Amendment package and such legislation in parliament since 2008. An old guard, Rabbani ran the Senate in a very effective way that earned him kudos from all sides. He was hard on the government and ministers for their lack of presence and interest in Senate. Not a favourite of Zardari, Rabbani was selected as a consensus candidate by PPP and PML-N for his services to parliamentary democracy, and former premier Nawaz Sharif declared his candidature then. But this time around, he fell out of favour with regard to Asif Zardari and was awarded party ticket for senator only after Bilawal Bhutto’s intervention.