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March 3, 2021

Fiercely fought Senate election: Upsets not ruled out

National

March 3, 2021

ISLAMABAD: Given the hectic lobbying by the competing parliamentary parties and the purported political wheeling and dealing, upsets are not being ruled out in Wednesday’s Senate elections.

The smallest change could tip the scales in favour of the side that makes gains over and above what it deserves according to its numerical strength in the electoral college.

Frenzied developments are taking place among certain sections of the electoral college. Some ruling coalition voters have openly made their opposition to the government public, indicating there could be some unexpected results. Apart from these announcements, clandestine contacts to sway voters away from their parties are also underway.

However, all eyes are set on the solitary general seat from the federal capital where the National Assembly members will vote. The fielding of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) as its joint candidate against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) nominee Finance Minister Dr Hafeez Shaikh has made the clash all the more important and attracted immense attention. As per the official tally, the PTI and its allies have around 20 more votes than those of the opposition.

Any upsets will disturb the post-election numerical scenario in the Senate. Calculations show that even if the ruling alliance and PDM bag their actual seats, the opposition parties would still have an edge of two votes over the government side. These votes could play a decisive role in the election of the Senate chairman by secret vote. However, the PDM’s advantage of a vote or two over its rival could easily be nullified by the government simply because it is in power. But if the gap widens, it might become difficult for the government to bridge it. Both sides are naturally eying the top Senate slot, a position that will play a key role in many respects in running the Upper House of parliament.

The possibility of unforeseen results could also be expected in some cases as the ballots cast would not be identifiable and their secrecy would be strictly maintained as in the past, according to the latest announcement of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The ECP has cited the time constraint as the reason not to take measures for the identification of the ballots in certain situations. The decision goes against the government’s keen desire to have the Senate elections through an open vote. Realising the importance of the Islamabad seat, Prime Minister Imran Khan held rare back-to-back meetings with members of the National Assembly belonging to the ruling alliance for three consecutive days in a bid to seek their votes en bloc. Such sessions with the PM had not been witnessed earlier even for the passage of the annual federal budgets.

Meanwhile, despite his poor health, former president Asif Ali Zardari --who is portrayed by his own party as a wheeler-dealer par excellence-- has flown into Islamabad to take charge of the canvassing. He is camped in the capital and will deploy his personal skills to campaign for Gilani. It was his decision to put up the ex-premier, a move the PDM constituent parties agreed to reluctantly. He has now taken the challenge upon his shoulders to ensure Gilani’s victory.

The government had made several efforts to introduce the open ballot in the Senate elections at all costs. It had tried to push a constitutional amendment in parliament but the move was thwarted by the opposition parties. It had attempted to get an amendment in the Elections Act 2017 approved by the legislature but in vain. It promulgated a conditional presidential ordinance but it could not secceed due to a judicial decision. The government had avoided tabling it in the Senate where the opposition parties were poised to shoot it down through a disapproving resolution. Finally, the government approached the Supreme Court by filing a presidential reference seeking its opinion on the open ballot pleading that the Constitution did not specify a secret ballot for the Senate polls. However, the court stated that the Upper House elections were held under the Constitution, meaning through a secret ballot, but said the ECP is required to take all available measures including utilising technologies to fulfil the solemn constitutional duty to ensure that the polls are conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law and that corrupt practices are guarded against.

Another noteworthy point in the context of the Senate elections is that the constitutional defection clause does not apply to voters not favouring their party’s candidate. Article 63A lists the acts that amount to defection. The first is when a member of a parliamentary party resigns from its membership. The second act of defection is committed when a lawmaker joins another party. The third category includes voting or refraining from voting contrary to any direction of their parliamentary party in relation to the election of the prime minister or the chief minister, a vote of confidence or a vote of no-trust against them, a money bill or a constitutional amendment bill.

Polling was originally to be held for a total of 48 Senate seats. However, after the unopposed election of all the 11 senators from Punjab, voting will now be for 37 seats – 11 from Sindh,12 each from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and two from Islamabad.