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March 8, 2021

Election of Senate chairman: Will secret voting spring another surprise?


March 8, 2021

ISLAMABAD: As the dust kicked up by the Senate polls and half a dozen by-elections — that hovered over national politics for two months— is yet to settle, another nail-biting contest is on the horizon for the office of the chairman of the Upper House of Parliament.

The outgoing senators will retire on March 11, creating vacancies for the new members to take their place and be sworn in. On the following day, the election for the Senate chairman will be held.

It promises to be the next major showdown between the ruling coalition and the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). As per the official numerical strength of the two sides, the PDM components have 53 senators against the combined strength of 47 for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its allies.

The post-election Senate consists of 100 members. Of them, former Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, who was elected in 2018 for six years, will not be available to the PDM to vote for its nominee for the Senate chairman as he, according to him, is in London in connection with his treatment. He had not taken oath when he had to leave Pakistan. No time limit is specified in the rules for a member-elect to take oath.

In Ishaq Dar’s absence, the combined numerical power of all the opposition parties in the Senate has been reduced to 52. Nevertheless, the PDM still has an edge of five votes over the governing coalition.

The Senate chairman’s election will be held by secret vote like the March 3 Senate polls, that witnessed a huge upset. Another surprise outcome cannot be ruled out in view of the difference of a mere five votes between the two rivals.

Any shock result emerging from this high-profile contest is likely to once again focus attention on keeping the secret vote intact or having an open ballot.

The PTI tried its best to have an open ballot in the just concluded Senate polls but its initiative did not include the election of the Senate chairman, who becomes acting president in the absence of the head of state. The amendments proposed in the Constitution and the Elections Act, 2017, which had been moved in the National Assembly, also did not provide for an open election for the Upper House chairman.

Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, who has been nominated by the ruling alliance for his re-election, represents the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP). He had worked for the government to ensure that dissensions were overcome in the Balochistan Assembly for the smooth election of the nominees of the ruling alliance. The BAP, which came into being in 2018, has emerged as the fourth largest party in the Upper House.

During a difficult time when the Senate was dominated by the opposition parties and confrontation prevailed between them and the government, Sanjrani struggled hard to conduct the proceedings amicably and remained largely successful. The opposition had failed to oust him through a no-trust resolution in August 2019 when at least 14 of its senators had defected in the secret vote.

Before the Senate polls, the PTI was keen to have a hardcore party loyalist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the chairman. However, it does not have the luxury of taking a unilateral decision about the Senate chairman candidate without consulting its allied parties. The PTI now stands as the number one party in the Senate in terms of numerical power, but its strength falls far short of electing its representative as the chairman single-handedly.

Although the PDM has not so far named Yousaf Raza Gillani as its candidate against Sanjrani, its constituent parties, particularly the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), are apparently not opposed to fielding him.

While pressing for his candidacy, the PPP’s argument is that as it is now the largest opposition party in the Senate, it deserves the unanimous nomination of the PDM for Gillani. The PML-N, meanwhile, is now the second largest opposition party in the Upper House.

Despite a significant improvement in its numbers in the Senate, the PTI will be dependent on its allies for any legislation it introduces; it must take them into confidence before introducing any law of its choice. In case of any constitutional amendment, the government will require the PDM’s support too because the combined numerical strength of the PTI and its allied parties is far lower than the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution.

Regardless of the outcome of the election for the Senate chairman, two key PDM components - the PML-N and JUI-F - are going to urge the PPP to wholeheartedly divert the attention of the opposition alliance to the planned long march that is scheduled to be launched on March 26 from different regions of Pakistan and head towards the federal capital. Planned to be the decisive move against the government, it is expected to arrive in Islamabad on March 30. Earlier, as the PDM’s protest campaign was gaining momentum, the ECP’s abrupt announcement to hold by-elections, which it had earlier postponed for an indefinite period on the recommendation of the National Command and Operations Centre in view of the fast spreading Covid-19 pandemic, had divided the attention of the opposition alliance. Instead, the move gave rise to serious differences within PDM ranks. The PPP emphasized that the alliance should participate in the Senate elections and by-polls for federal and provincial seats and should not leave the electoral field open to its rivals. The PML-N and JUI-F, however, opposed the suggestion. To save the coalition from an unceremonious end, the two parties agreed to go along with the PPP. However, despite the electoral success the PDM enjoyed, it distracted the alliance from its agitational politics for a long period as everyone became busy with the by-elections and Senate polls.