Storm in the Senate

July 28, 2019

If it is unable to persuade the joint opposition to withdraw the no-confidence motion, the PTI will have to either urge Sanjrani to voluntarily step down or resort to horse trading

Storm in the Senate

The ruling coalition and the joint opposition are bracing up for the final battle in the Senate ahead of the imminent vote on the no-confidence motion against its chairman.

The no-trust move, motivated by purely partisan considerations, is the first of its kind in the history of the Upper House. Senator Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani, is the first from Balochistan to be elected to the Chair. He was elected in March 2018 with the support of the-then opposition parties in the Senate mainly the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

These parties had backed the independent, young senator to deny the control of the House to Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN), then the ruling party; allegedly to please the military establishment, which was accused of engaging in political engineering to oust the PMLN from power.

The joint opposition in the House - mainly comprising the PPP and the PMLN - came up with the idea of bringing other opposition parties to the table, after the arrests of the top leaders of these two parties on graft charges with slim chances of any kind of relief, including release on bail, from the courts. Soon after PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari was arrested and PMLN supreme leader Nawaz Sharif was denied bail on medical grounds, the two parties decided to launch a movement against the government and placed removal of the Senate chairman at the top of the agenda. Together, they have nominated Senator Hasil Khan Bizenjo of the National Party, also hailing from Balochistan, as their candidate for chairman.

Following the no-confidence motion against Chairman Sanjrani, in a tit-for-tat move, the PTI has moved a no-confidence motion against Deputy Chairman Saleem Mandviwalla, who is a PPP member.

Today, a candidate needs 52 votes to be elected chairman, as the membership of PMLN Senator Ishaq Dar has been suspended by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for being an absconder on graft charges.

The present composition of the Upper House shows that the opposition parties enjoy an absolute majority. The joint opposition claims to have the support of 67 members. The PMLN and the PPP alone, have a total of 52 seats (PMLN-32 and PPP-20), sufficient to oust Chairman Sanjrani.

The ruling coalition has only 37 members, of which 14 are from the PTI and 23 from its coalition partners.

The role of a dozen independent senators will be important in case of defections from the opposition ranks.

"The removal of the sitting Senate chairman is the writing on the wall. The ruling party should accept it and urge the chairman to step down, taking high moral ground," Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, a PPP senator and spokesperson for the party chairman, told TNS.

"The number game in the Upper House clearly indicates that there is no chance for the ruling coalition to maintain the chairman. They are quite low on numbers," he said.

Justifying the opposition move, Khokhar said that Sanjrani had become the chairman in March 2018 with the "obvious support of the PPP". Otherwise, he said, there was was no chance for him.

"In fact, Sanjrani was the candidate of joint opposition at that time as PMLN was the ruling party and the PTI was in the opposition. But, after the general elections in July 2018, his group became loyal to the new government and voted for PTI candidates for the slots of speaker and PM rather than support the joint opposition," he maintained, adding, "he was a candidate of the joint opposition who later changed sides so we decided to go against him".

He denied that the chairman was being targeted because both the major opposition parties had failed to get relief for their top brass who are under arrest at present.

"Even with horse trading, which is immoral but a possibility, it is impossible for the ruling coalition to muster the support required to keep Sanjrani in office," he added.

President Arif Alvi has summoned the Senate on August 1 to take up the important matter.

The removal of the chairman and deputy chairman of the Senate is moved under Rule 12 (Removal of Chairman or Deputy Chairman) of the Rules of Procedure in Conduct of Business in the Senate. The rule clearly states that on the particular day when the session is summoned for such motion(s) no other agenda would be taken up in the House. The voting is by secret ballot. If the resolution(s) are passed the chairman/deputy chairman stand removed.

The ruling coalition - led by the PTI - is making every effort to reach a settlement to avoid the vote as it clearly lacks the required number to keep Sanjrani the chairman of the House.

The ruling party is seen making the utmost effort to convince the joint opposition to withdraw the no-confidence motion against the chairman. However, the prospects of this are fading away by the day. There is no indication so far of horse trading by the government to maintain the status quo.

The government has three options. The first is to prevail on the joint opposition to withdraw the no-trust motion through a political give-and-take; the second is to accept defeat; and the third is to go for horse trading to garner support for Sanjrani.

Although it is hard to predict the future, the most likely outcome seems to be that the opposition will be able elect a chairman of its choice and retain the deputy chairman. It is possible that the session will go one for longer than one day.

Political commentators believe that it would be almost impossible to get the support of 15 opposition senators. If they are unable to persuade the joint opposition, they say, the PTI should seek moral high ground and urge Sanjrani to step down. An attempt to defeat the motion through horse trading, they warn, will further tarnish the image of the ruling party in the backdrop of allegations of ‘selection’ by the establishment.

"Sanjrani should have stepped down as he clearly lacks the required support", journalist Mazhar Abbas says.

"If there is a move to get the support of members of the opposition (considering vote by secret ballot), it will be highly unethical. It will set a bad precedent for democracy, which is already facing serious challenges in term of transparency", he opines.

Several members of the ruling coalition, as well as some political analysts have said that a victory for the joint opposition will be largely symbolic. It will be seen as political revenge. The Senate, they point out, cannot block legislation because there is a constitutional provision to get bills rejected by the Senate passed through a joint session of the parliament (Senate and National Assembly).

"We are trying our best. We are hopeful," Leader of the House Shibli Faraz says.

Khokhar, however, warns that "this will not be a merely moral or symbolic victory. There are many others moves on the cards and many surprises ahead for the ruling party."

Storm in the Senate