The question of credibility

Over the past two and a half decades, the Senate has lost some of its credibility

The question of credibility


he Election Commission of Pakistan has announced that the 2024 election for the Senate, the Upper House of the parliament, will be held in April 2024. The House is set to fill 48 vacant seats, following the expiry of the six-year term of 52 senators on March 12. This is because the 25th Constitutional Amendment, providing for the merger of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, reduced the number of Senate members from 104 to 100 in 2021 and to 96 in 2024. The 48 vacant seats will now be filled by the federating units and the Islamabad Capital Territory. Each federating unit will elect 11 senators (7 general, 2 women and 2 technocrats/ ulema) whereas the Federal Territory will elect two. Two reserved seats for non-Muslims will be filled, one each by the Punjab and Sindh.

All the major political parties including the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party have claimed that they will win more seats than indicated by their strength in the legislatures. How can such claims be made? If any of the claims are true, it means that some of the legislators will go against the party line. This suggests horse-trading, which is unfortunately not new to Senate elections. Recent history in fact is replete with examples of horse-trading. Can senators elected through such means be reasonably expected to uphold the sanctity of the House?

Ideally, the Senate of Pakistan should play its role to: 1) propose, scrutinise and review legislation; 2) put brakes on hasty legislation and enlighten the Lower House – National Assembly – by raising the standard of debate; 3) keep a check on the abuse of powers by the Lower House; 4) hold sway over critical decisions that shape the legal landscape of the nation; 5) scrutinise the actions and policies of the Executive and hold it to account; and 6) ratify foreign agreements, treaties and defence deals.

For various reasons, the Upper House has been unable mostly to perform the role expected of it. For instance, two military interventions since 1973 have militated against the evolution of constitutional institutions and caused incalculable harm to the Senate and the National Assembly.

Despite this weakness, the Senate has been an embodiment of wisdom and foresight. A majority of its members have been educated and trained political workers. These senators have engaged in quality debates on this prestigious forum. Some of them have raised serious issues such as missing persons, political prisoners and religious persecution. They have often been critical of the political role of the establishment. The Senate has also been an active watch dog, keeping an eye on government policies and legislation by the Lower House. Moreover, it has been trying to promote national cohesion and harmony and to alleviate fears of the smaller provinces regarding domination by a single province through a majority in the National Assembly.

However, over the past two and a half decades, the Senate has lost some of its credibility. Hollow debates have echoed through its corridors. The erosion of quality is a stark reminder of the institutional decay that threatens the very essence of democracy in the country. For instance, the details of an in-camera briefing on security issues by Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the then chief of army staff, were allegedly leaked to the media. This harmed the credibility of the House on the one hand and the civil-military relations on the other.

In 2019, Sadiq Sanjrani, the then Senate chairman, survived a vote of no-confidence despite having support of fewer members than required. The opposition had 64 votes and needed 53 to remove Sanjrani from office. Astonishingly, only 50 senators voted to oust him.

In 2021, PTI-backed Sadiq Sanjrani defeated PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gillani — the Pakistan Democratic Movement candidate, while polling 48 votes. Gillani polled 42 votes. Surprisingly, 8 votes were rejected for not being stamped properly.

Three resolutions were presented in the Senate within a month and a half to postpone the general elections scheduled to be held on February 8, 2024. Interestingly, two of these were adopted by the house.

When the National Assembly passed 72 bills within a week in August 2023, including legislation on election reforms, amendments in important laws like the Army Act and Official Secrets Act, and changes to the NAB Ordinance, the Senate, instead of applying brakes, passed a majority of these bills without thorough debate.

Given such failures by the Senate, one can say that it is now marred by mediocrity. This decline can be attributed to two important reasons: 1) Senators are elected indirectly, through the members of the Provincial and National Assemblies; and 2) the Senate chairman and deputy chairman are elected through a secret ballot. Both the indirect election of the senators and the secret ballot in the House open the door for horse-trading and floor crossing.

How can the sanctity and credibility of the Senate be restored?

First, senators should be elected directly. This will expand the electorate, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the candidates to buy or influence their voters. Second, Senate chairman and deputy chairman should be elected through an open ballot. It appears that the secret ballot cuts both ways. While removing it may eliminate horse-trading, it may increase the likelihood of senators failing to take principled positions independent of their parties. It can be argued that people have a right to know how their elected representatives are voting. In that sense, open votes have a strong case.

The writer is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad, and a research fellow at PIDE, Islamabad. He can be reached at His X handle: @MazharGondal87 

The question of credibility