Clash of the titans

February 21, 2021

As the battle for 48 Senate seats heats up, treasury and opposition parties engage in intense political contest

The forthcoming election to the Upper House of parliament has assumed enormous importance for the government as well as the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

If the opposition alliance makes unexpected gains, it might pave the way for a possible no-confidence motion against prime minister.

Election for 48 vacant seats (12 each for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, 11 each for the Punjab and Sindh and two for Islamabad) will be held on March 3, 2021. The PDM is contesting the polls by fielding joint candidates against the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Balochistan Awami Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid and the Balochistan Awami Party.

The elections are being viewed as the most intriguing in the history of the Upper House. Claiming that it wants fair and transparent election without any possibility of horse-trading, the government earlier introduced a presidential ordinance for holding the elections through open ballot. It has also filed a reference before the Supreme Court of Pakistan and moved a constitutional amendment bill in the National Assembly.

While hearing the petition, a five-member bench of the apex court has urged the parties to uphold the transparency and integrity of the election and remarked that the number of Senate seats won should represent the parties’ respective strength in the respective assemblies. The suggestion appears laudable but might not result in assuring the desired results of merit and transparency as party leaders remain free to nominate people with little political credibility and competence. Non-political entities making it to the Senate on account of their financial muscle is a familiar scenario. If such a rule is introduced, members of the parliamentary boards will likely replace the electoral college members as beneficiaries/ recipients of hefty bribes.

The Supreme Court has yet to decide the fate of the reference. As the Upper House is incomplete at the moment, it can pass no legislation. In 2019, the PTI had celebrated the failure of a no-trust motion against the Senate chairman. That outcome was made possible by 14 senators from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) either absenting themselves or voting against party line. The ruling PTI had not objected to the tactics back then. Today, the party is engaged in a concerted effort to protect itself against a similar betrayal in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies. Another purpose of the exercise might be bringing more pressure on the opposition. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s recent statement hints at this possibility. “We don’t have a two-thirds majority in the parliament to amend the law. However, our move has shown that the opposition does not want fair and free elections. That is why it is not supporting the amendment.”

For their part, the PDM leaders allege that Prime Minister Imran Khan wants to bring his hand-picked people to the Senate. “The purpose of bringing the amendment, filing a reference and issuing the presidential ordinance is to keep a check on his party’s parliamentarians,” says Pervaiz Rashid, a PML-N stalwart.

In an interesting move, the PPP has fielded former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani from Islamabad against Hafeez Sheikh. The PTI challenged Gilani’s nomination on the grounds that he had been disqualified for public office by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. However, the returning officer rejected the objection.

Former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has said that any person could contest the election after completing the term of disqualification. “He can contest the elections now,” says Chaudhry.

Interestingly, Gilani’s nomination was not challenged in 2018 when he stood for a National Assembly seat. The PTI objection against his nomination is another indicator that the PDM has unnerved the ruling alliance by fielding him from Islamabad. After all, ensuring a Senate seat for him by fielding him from Sindh was a simple matter.

The PPP and the PDM appear to be aiming far higher. The former prime minister has deep roots in southern Punjab where the PPP was once the strongest political party. Meanwhile, most of the PTI’s legislators from southern Punjab are not happy with the party for various reasons. For one, they are not getting a say in how development funds are allocated. The manifesto promise of making southern Punjab a separate province has also not been fulfilled. Above all, they are quite unhappy with Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. These factors may compel them to vote against the party candidates.

In 2019, the PTI had celebrated the failure of a no-trust motion against the Senate chairman. This was made only possible due to the betrayal of 14 senators from the opposition who either absented themselves or voted against party line. The ruling PTI had never objected to such tactics back then. Now, PTI’s move to change the voting process seems an effort to save itself from a similar betrayal in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies.

Gilani also has close ties with the family of Pir Pagaro, the leader of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), PTI’s ally in Sindh and in the National Assembly. Gilani may get a couple of votes from the GDA as well. If he wins the seat, it will be a morale booster not only for the PDM but also for the PPP. Asif Zardari, it may be recalled, had advised PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif to adopt a constitutional way to deposing Imran Khan. He had told him to contest by-elections and the Senate elections before starting the long-march, sit-in and no-confidence motions in the Punjab and the National Assembly.

Should Gilani win the Senate seat, the PDM will likely move a no-confidence motion not only in the Punjab Assembly and the National Assembly but also against the Senate chairman. Gilani might also prove a strong candidate for Senate chairman. If he loses, however, this would be a serious setback for the PDM and its movement to oust government.
Then they would be left with no other option besides staging a long march or resigning en masse.

Another moral booster for the PDM might be the results of the by elections to two Sindh and one Balochistan Assembly seats. The PPP has won from Malir, Karachi and Sanghar against the PTI and the GDA candidates, respectively. The JUI-F has won against the BAP candidate with a huge margin in Balochistan. The PTI and GDA candidates were unable to poll the votes they had got in the general elections.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission of Pakistan has rejected the nomination papers of Pervaiz Rashid for alleged default of bills Punjab House bills.

Talking to The News on Sunday, Rashid said: “It is strange. I seldom stay at Punjab House; I used to stay in the parliament lodges. I also cleared all my bills for my occasional stays at Punjab House and have kept the receipts. Still, an objection was raised that I have not paid nearly a million rupees.” He says he has told the returning officer that he has no outstanding dues but was willing to pay the amount to remove the objection. “On Thursday, we tried to pay the amount, but nobody was willing to receive it. When we went to the returning officer and told him that nobody is ready to receive the money, instead of redressing our grievance, he rejected my nomination papers.” He says he will file an appeal against the decision before the Election Tribunal.

Reacting to the decision, Maryam Nawaz has tweeted. “I am keeping an eye and if Pervaiz Rashid’s papers are rejected and papers of renowned and established criminals and wrongdoers are accepted, the double standards will have to be exposed. The media should do that too. It’s your duty. It is everyone’s duty to raise a voice against the mockery of justice.”

PML-N information secretary Maryam Aurangzeb said in a statement that the anti-democratic forces were trying hard to keep democratic voices like Pervaiz Rashid’s out of the democratic process.

There is little doubt that the PTI will become the largest party in the Senate following the elections. However, it will face a tough time as the PDM parties will still have a few seats more than the government and its allies. This means legislation in the Upper House will remain a challenge for the PTI.

The writer is a senior journalist, security analyst and teacher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

Senate election: Clash of the titans