A close contest

March 7, 2021

With Yousaf Raza Gilani’s win against Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh in the Senate elections, the PTI’s confidence seems to be plummeting

The theatrics around the Senate elections have finally concluded with a rather surprise end. Despite strenuous efforts of the ruling party, the PTI government failed to secure a seat for Finance Minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh as the former prime minister and joint candidate of Pakistan Democratic Movement Yousuf Raza Gillani defeated him with a thin margin of five votes.

Although a close contest was expected, given the PTI majority in the National Assembly, most political pundits were predicting a victory for Hafeez Shaikh with a margin of 5 to 20 votes. Surprisingly Gillani polled 169 votes, while Shaikh bagged 164. Seven votes cast for this general seat from Islamabad were rejected. However, on the women’s seat from Islamabad, PTI’s candidate Fauzia Arshad had a smooth sailing, defeating her opponent and PDM candidate Farzana Kauser by a margin of 13 votes.

Perturbed by Hafeez Shaikh’s defeat, senior PTI leaders questioned the impartiality of the Election Commission soon after the Senate polls. Addressing a press conference, a jubilant Pakistan Peoples Party chairman and the winning candidate Gillani said, “If he (the prime minister) has any sense of honour then he should resign (from the office). Imran Khan should submit his resignation today as the demand for his resignation is no longer coming from only the opposition, it has now become a demand of the government members as well.” He claimed that many PTI MNAs who voted for Hafeez Shaikh now wanted to join the PPP or the PML-N “because they have done nothing for the common man”. He said that the present government had made life miserable for the people by increasing prices of essential items.

Nawaz Sharif congratulated Gillani over the phone and Maryam Nawaz congratulated him in a tweet. Shahbaz Sharif, in a meeting with party members, severely criticised the government, which according to him was the worst government he had ever seen. Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, the head of the PDM, also demanded the prime minister’s resignation.

The very next day after holding a meeting with Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of Army Staff and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) director general, the prime minister, in a televised address to the nation, alleged that the opposition parties had bribing the voters to get Gillani elected.

“There is video evidence that Gillani’s son offered bribes to some members of the parliament,” he said. He also severely criticised the Election Commission for not taking action against malpractices in the electoral process. He said that after the Supreme Court’s observation, the Election Commission had opportunity to hold Senate Elections through traceable balloting to ensure transparency; however, it didn’t exercise that option. This, he said showed its bias.

Khan said the PPP and the PML-N had agreed in principle to open balloting for Senate elections but were opposing it now to protect their corruption. He reiterated his vow not to extend them an ‘NRO’ at any cost. He said even if he lost the confidence of his party members and allies he would keep on fighting against corruption. He also mentioned that Sadiq Sinjrani, the Senate chairman, will be the PTI’s candidate for the next term as well.

Commenting on the prime minister’s address, Mazhar Abbas, a senior political analyst, said that the Election Commission could not hold open ballot elections without a constitutional amendment. He said only the parliament could make such a amendment.

“The prime minister, instead of criticising the Election Commission, should tell the nation why the Electoral Reforms Bill has not been presented in the National Assembly for debate,” he says.

Miftah Ismail, a PML-N leader said that over the last two years prices of essential items like sugar, flour and electricity had doubled but the prime minister is “criticising the opposition for corruption. This is a joke”.

A senior leader of the PTI, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that their party had been asking for open ballot because there were signs that many MNAs and MPAs were unhappy with the state of affairs of the government.

“For last two years they’ve been demanding development funds for their areas but apart from assurances, they received nothing; and inflation [rate] further put them in an awkward situation to face people of their constituencies,” he said.

He said that all parliamentarians, but especially the parliamentarians from South Punjab and Sindh, were very disillusioned because they had pinned high hopes on the PTI government. A few days before the Senate polls, two members of the Provincial Assembly from Sindh Shah Yar Khan and Karim Bux Gabol had announced through a video message that they would not vote for the PTI candidate.

If we look at the outcome of Senate elections, the PPP has managed to elect eight new senators against as many retired. The PML-N, as expected, has lost ground and managed to clinch only five seats (won uncontested in the Punjab) against 17 of its retiring senators.

Another party that has managed to gain ground is the Balochistan Awami Party — an ally of the ruling PTI — which secured six seats against three of its senators who retired, swelling its ranks to 13 in the Senate.

In 2021, 52 senators (who were elected in 2015) are set to retire. The other 52 were elected in 2018 and will retire in 2024. However, elections were being held only on 48 seats this time after erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were merged with KP.

Therefore, the Senate will now comprise 100 lawmakers; 23 each from the four provinces and four from Islamabad. The remaining four senators from FATA will retire in 2024. After the elections the PTI and its allies will have 47 senators whereas there will be 53 opposition members. The government will thus need opposition support for the election of chairperson of Senate.

The 23 seats allocated to a province comprise 14 general seats, four reserved for women, four for technocrats and one for minorities.

Earlier, all Senate candidates from the Punjab were elected unopposed after major political parties — the PTI, the PML-N and the PPP — agreed to withdraw candidatures of some of their respective hopefuls. As a result, out of the 11 seats, five each went to the PTI and the PML-N and one to the PML-Quaid, an ally of the PTI.

The author is a freelance analyst

Senate election: A close contest