Controversial Senate Elections
Asif Haroon Raja
The March 3 Senate elections seem to be the most controversial elections in the 45-year-old history of the upper house of the Parliament as all the parties are crying foul and accusing each other of indulging in horse-trading. It is proven that big amounts were doled out to 20 legislators of PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly to secure votes for PPP. PTI MPAs have confirmed that they are being asked by their leadership to return the amounts. Likewise MQM (Bahadurabad Group) MPAs were also purchased by Zardari.
Next round of foul play was witnessed on March 12, on which the election for the offices of Senate chairman and deputy chairman took place. PML-N with highest numbers of seats had fielded Raja Zafarul Haq to contest against joint opposition candidate Sadiq Sanjrani from Balochistan. Zafarul Haq was appointed at the 11th hour when PPP refused to accept PML-N’s proposal to field outgoing chairman Raza Rabbani. For the seat of deputy, Usman Kakar from Balochistan was pitched against Mandiwala (PPP nominee). The opposition band comprised of PPP, PTI and MQM (Bahadurabad).
The ones sitting inside the parliament house and those watching on their television screens were taken by complete surprise as the presiding officer declared that 40-year-old Sadiq Sanjrani, an unknown entity and a political minnow was the new, democratically-elected chairman of the Senate. He had secured six votes more than the desired figure of 52. Without any political association, he had managed to defeat an alliance of parties headed by political heavyweights such as Nawaz Sharif (NS), Mahmood Khan Achakzai, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Hasil Bizenjo and Pir Pagara.
To dub this is a surprise would be an understatement. How could a pygmy first win the Senate elections as an independent candidate, and then, bag the crown of chairman of the upper house of the parliament? How could he floor all the seasoned politicians in one lunge? The only support that Sanjrani seemed to have was from five independent candidates from Balochistan. There had to be some secret hands that helped him in achieving the marvel.
What magic this six-man team had that forced archenemies Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan (IK) to join forces and put their weight behind Sanjrani? Why did the PPP the second-largest party in the house with 20 seats opt for the deputy chairman`s office? The consensus among commentators is that the party would have bagged the Senate chairman`s office with ease had Raza Rabbani been nominated. Whether one likes it or not, the fact is that Sadiq Sanjrani is now the democratically elected chairman of the Senate, as prescribed in the constitution.
Elections to the Senate are held after every three years. In Pakistan, where the military has directly ruled for more than three decades, these elections have continued to take place without fail for the past 33 years. But never have the Senate elections evoked as much public attention as they did this time.
The media gave exceptional coverage to it, in part because there was absolutely no certainty about whether elections would even be held. The apprehension was that the `real political players` or the `establishment` of the country did not want to see a second smooth transition from one civilian government to another.
A perception that Senate elections were in jeopardy was given hype by the media and PML-N social media in the wake of the events that had unfolded starting with the Supreme Court removing NS from office in the Panama Papers case to a ruling that barred NS from holding office of party president. As Senate elections drew nearer, this narrative bugged the minds of all the mainstream political parties and had become a hot topic for discussion by the analysts.
Some baseless rumors gained currency and several scenarios about future political dispensation were floated and heatedly debated on social media. The most hyped themes were ‘technocrat government’, and ‘nexus between Establishment and Judiciary. While NS and his lobbyists blamed the judiciary for being prejudiced, anti NS lobbyists bucked up the judiciary and kept elbowing it to hurry his conviction in three reference cases.
The seeds of discontent were sown in January, when the PML-N lost its coalition government in Balochistan after a revolt within the party. Many started to argue that this political move in Balochistan, at this point in time, was being orchestrated by the invisible `non-political forces` in an attempt to delay the Senate polls or to deprive PML-N from winning Senate elections.
The ruling party found more reasons to beat the drum. Its stalwarts cried out that it was not possible for Zardari to have conducted political engineering and horse trading all by himself. The July 2017 apex court verdict that barred Sharif from holding a party office also deprived PML-N candidates of their election symbol, just a few days before the Senate polls, because their nominations had been signed by Sharif. These steps further reinforced the suspicions of PML-N that the judiciary was predisposed and was implementing the given script.
Despite the obstructions, the Senate elections could not be delayed. But those intent on disrupting the democratic process had more tricks up their sleeves. Analysts and political pundits in Islamabad believe that once `Plan A `to delay the Senate elections failed to materialise, the `schemers` implemented `Plan B` and deprived the single largest party of the upper house from getting its nominees elected as the Senate chairman and the deputy chairman.
Similarly, it was also opined by some politicians that when `their` plan to force the government to call it a day through Faizabad Interchange dharna failed, and the next plan to bring Zardari and IK together through Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) chief Dr Tahirul Qadri in last January also backfired, they managed to achieve the same target through unknown young Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Quddoos Bizenjo belonging to PML-Q.
Lodged in Balochistan House in Islamabad a few days before the Senate elections, Quddoos shuttled between Zardari House and Bani Gala and eventually managed to bring the two antagonists together. He succeeded in getting IK to vote for Zardari`s nominee for deputy chairman. Although the move was justified in the name of giving representation to a smaller province, nobody is ready to believe that Zardari and IK have done so out of love for the people of Balochistan and to alleviate their sufferings.
Both PTI and PPP are vying to gain power in next elections, but well knowing that their chances are slim due to their below average performance, they are expectantly looking toward the judiciary to remove the major stumbling block, NS led PML-N whose performance is far superior to others. Another contender for power has emerged in the form of Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) under Quddus, which comprise mostly of dissidents of PML-N. All legislators of PML-N in Baluchistan will soon join the new party.
It has unveiled the wily plan which is similar to the midwifing of King’s Party by Gen Musharraf in 2002. Other suchlike experiments were MQM, MQM Haqiqi and PSP. We know the fate of those experiments. For the first time a national party had won sizeable chunk of seats in Baluchistan in 2013 elections and it might have further improved its vote bank in next elections. Regionalization of politics and marginalization of national political parties when seen in context with germs of provincialism and 18th Amendment is harmful for the federation.
The BAP soon after its inception on March 29, made history by inducing exiled Juma Khan Marri to return and join the new party. Hopefully more would return. If the intentions of BAP are sincere and based on honesty of purpose to make Baluchistan peaceful, integrated and prosperous and free of racial prejudices, I wish the new party all the best.
Many in the PTI rank and file are unhappy with the leadership`s decision to enter into an undeclared alliance with the most corrupt Zardari. They feel that the party has compromised its high moral ground. In order to hide his embarrassment and to pacify PTI activists, IK futilely tried to justify his volte face by saying: `Had we allowed the PML-N to bag the office of the Senate chairman, they would have brought legislation to save the Sharifs from accountability and to protect money that they have looted.
The other fear of PTI, PPP, Judiciary and the Establishment was that after winning majority in both the houses, PML-N will not only restore NS but also clip the wings of Judiciary and Establishment. PTI’s leading lights naively feel that the move made by their leader has not only blocked PML-N from gaining majority in two houses but has also lessened the chances of victory of PMLN in coming elections and brightened the chances of PTI.
Saner elements and experienced politicians however are not buying their arguments and believe that machinations in the Senate polls amounts to razing of a genuine political mandate and will harm democratic progress. Some are suspecting that once the initial plan of sabotaging Senate elections backfired, Plan B was launched to put up controlled Senate with puppets running the show. They say that perhaps Raza Rabbani and Farhatullah Babar advocating supremacy of parliament were irreconcilable.
Some of the reasons behind Plan B were the sinister designs of ruling party, hype created by media about annulment of certain clauses of 18th Amendment in the constitution, supposedly harmful for the integrity of the federation, allegedly professed by COAS Gen Bajwa, together with so-called Bajwa doctrine and the circulating gossip that ‘Army was standing behind the judiciary’.
Nationalist Senators from Baluchistan affiliated with PML-N were in high temper and expressed their deep resentment after the results were announced and first session of The Senate was presided over by Sanjrani. They bewailed that they had managed to build a semblance of the supremacy of parliament, brick by brick, but now they felt that the house had crumbled. Hasil Bezinjo angrily said that the face of parliament had been blackened.
He claimed that the parliament stood defeated this day when it was practically proved that the `dominant forces` were more powerful than the parliament. He said the assemblies of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had been turned into a market where votes were purchased. He asked the `dominant institutions` and political parties to let democracy prevail.
PkMAP`s Usman Kakar bluntly said that an intelligence agency was continuously meddling in the affairs of parliament; an act he deemed as `venomous for the state’. He warned, `They want to defeat parliament and democracy. They have opened up a front in the country’. He appealed to all political parties to unite for the supremacy of parliament, rule of law and constitution, and to prevent the interference of intelligence agencies in politics. He argued that given what had happened during the Senate elections, the intelligence agencies had now put a question mark over the upcoming general elections, too.
Sanjrani with no past experience has an uphill task ahead of him. His first task will be to win the trust of the house, the majority of whom believe that he has reached the office through manipulation and with the support of `unseen forces.` It will be extremely difficult for him to fit into the big shoes of Rabbani who had transformed the Senate from a `debating club` to a true `House of the Federation` in merely three years and had issued 78 rulings, more than the combined rulings of his three predecessors in 13 years.
PM Khaqan Abbasi has made things further difficult for Sanjrani when he stated on March 24 that he commands no respect among the masses since votes were bought to make him the chairman. He suggested his removal and replacement by consensus chairman. Some quarters are suspecting that PML-N may use money to bring vote of no confidence against Sanjrani. BAP leaders have taken offence to Abbasi’s outburst and threatened to march to Islamabad if he doesn’t takes his words back.
All eyes are now set on the NAB’s verdict on three cases which have already crossed the deadline of 15 March given by apex court. So far no documentary evidence has been furnished before the trial court by prosecution witnesses including Wajid Zia that NS had any linkage with Gulf Steel Mills, Al-Azizia Steel Mills and Avenfield apartments, or he had any role in these deals. It was also not established that NS had any connection with Qatari royal family. These have apparently gone in favor of NS and has deeply upset his antagonists.
As if this worry was not enough, sudden and unplanned meeting of PM Abbasi with chief justice Saqib Nisar on March 27 is giving sleepless nights to them. They are trying to read too much out of it and fear that some kind of NRO may not have been agreed upon to let NS off the hook. Earlier on, a rumored meeting between COAS and CM Punjab had also disturbed the opponents of PML-N. However, in the wake of NS’s unrelenting attacks on the judiciary, they are very hopeful that soon he will land in jail.
It was against this backdrop that the DG ISPR dropped another bombshell upon the rumor mongers by making it clear in his press briefing on March 28 that the Army had played no role in political maneuvering, nor has anything to do with NRO, or had sought alteration in 18th Amendment. He said that the news about Gen Bajwa-Shahbaz meeting was false. He also clarified that Bajwa doctrine was misquoted and wrongly interpreted and that it envisions safe, secure and peaceful Pakistan and nothing more. He rejected the impression that the Army was behind any dharna. About elections, he stated that EC is empowered to announce dates and sitting government and interim setup have a role in it. His briefing has punctured the balloons of the gossipers trying to tarnish the image of the military.
The people are looking forward for timely elections but for that delimitation of constituencies has to be completed by Election Commission (EC). The PM and opposition leader are required to form interim government. It is generally perceived that given the level of aversion, differences over selection of caretaker PM and CMs will prop up and perforce EC will do the needful, failing which the Supreme Court will step in to resolve the issue. Smooth and peaceful transition will strengthen democracy.
Despite all the internal difficulties and external dangers, I still believe that Pakistan has a great future and it has the requisite potential and resilience to overcome the challenges. Pakistan is blessed with infinite resources and CPEC is a major project which is a ray of hope in these melancholic circumstances.
Since political stability is going to play a pivotal role in the development of our country, what is needed is electoral reforms. Democracy is essential for a better Pakistan but certain crucial reforms are required such judicial, bureaucracy, police, education, media and moral reforms. These projects should be undertaken either by the caretakers or by the next elected government.
The writer is retired Brig, war veteran, defence, security and political analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, Editor-in-Chief Better Morrow magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org