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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Senate for sale?

A senator’s job is one of the best jobs for which a politician can aspire in Pakistan. It gives him or her an uninterrupted six-year term as member of the upper house of parliament, with all the perks and benefits of a parliamentarian and none of the responsibilities that the member of the National Assembly has to shoulder.
There is no need to run a tough campaign to seek votes during the general election or worry about a particular constituency with its hundreds of needs. There isn’t any accountability and still considerable funds at one’s disposal to oblige anyone.
No wonder then that there is always a long list of applicants seeking a seat in the 104-member Senate. The leadership of the political parties is put to a test every three years when the Senate election is held while deciding the ticket-holders from among the scores of influential aspirants.
All strings are pulled to seek party tickets. It isn’t always merit that clinches the award of party ticket, as relatives and friends have to be obliged. In fact, the easiest way to perpetuate a political dynasty or create a new one is to give a ticket to an offspring to jump-start his or her career in electoral politics.
The use of money to buy votes is frequent and no longer considered unethical. The price of a vote is forever on the rise, as if it were linked to inflation and devaluation of the Pakistani rupee. Buyers and sellers of votes are often known, but it isn’t easy to name names due to lack of hard evidence. Once in a while a disciplined political party takes action against its vote-selling lawmakers, but there is no repentance and those deserving disqualification have continued to sit in the assemblies by exploiting legal loopholes. Also, senators known to have bought their seats in the Senate were never made accountable.
The recent Senate polls were important in setting the course of future politics in Pakistan as the ruling PPP and its coalition partners were destined to win the majority of seats on the basis of their existing strength in the National Assembly and the four provincial assemblies. In fact, the PPP and its allies believed that the ‘establishment’ or whatever that means was determined to ensure the fall of their government before the Senate election in which it was expected to gain an upper hand.
The governing alliance has now got two-thirds majority in the Senate and would be in a better position to ward off challenges to its rule from different quarters and confidently face the next general election.
There are strong indications that the general election would be held in the coming October. The presentation of the annual budget in May, one month ahead of schedule, to allow sufficient time to install the caretaker government for holding the general election, the release of record amounts of funds for development projects and lifting the ban on recruitment in certain government departments are some of the indications pointing towards the likelihood of early polls. By consolidating its position after doing well in the Senate election, the PPP-led coalition would be hoping to maintain the momentum through some populist measures in a bid to win the October 2012 polls.
The March 2 election for 54 Senate seats predictably generated controversies amid allegations of the sale and purchase of votes and complaints of betrayal. The candidature of wealthy independents and the decision by some political parties to award tickets to moneyed candidates from their list of applicants had set the trend for the use of money in the election. Even the Islamic party, the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, preferred to award the ticket to a wealthy candidate, Talha Mahmood, instead of some of its leading clerics forming the core of the party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa due to concerns that money would be a factor in achieving victory.
Talha Mahmood did the trick by obtaining 23 votes, nine more than 14 MPAs of the party who were his confirmed voters in the provincial assembly. Some other parties also didn’t want to take the risk and gave tickets to rich candidates so that they could secure the needed votes on their own. There are even reports that in some cases wealthy party candidates paid-off some of their own MPAs so that they weren’t lured by money offered by other contestants.
The pitfall of having a less moneyed candidate was evident in Punjab. The only upset in the province was the defeat of Aslam Gill, the candidate of common PPP workers who got 42 instead of 48 votes allotted to him after being betrayed by six party MPAs. The beneficiary was independent candidate Mohsin Leghari, who is a PML-Q man but didn’t contest on the party ticket to be able to seek votes from other parties.
The results in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were predictable and the outcome went according to the strategy devised by the ruling coalition of the PPP, MQM and PML-F in the former and the PPP and ANP in the latter. The PPP, ANP and MQM gained the most to strengthen their presence in the Senate.
In Balochistan, the split mandate in the 2008 election was also reflected in the Senate polls. The PML-Q has been the biggest loser in the province on both occasions as its legislators have failed to come together and take a bigger share in power in line with their numbers. The Senate election further decimated the PML-Q strength in the country.
Splits have sapped the strength of the ‘King’s Party’ cobbled together by military ruler General Pervez Musharraf to suit his political ambitions and its two factions would lose more people in the run-up to the general election. Most of the Q-Leaguers are flocking to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and it is hardly surprising because they habitually look for parties that have chances of coming into power.
The weirdest election for the Senate was the one meant to fill the four seats for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). It has been reported that votes were openly up for sale in this election. This was bound to happen as 11 tribal MNAs (one seat from militancy-hit South Waziristan is vacant as no election could be held there in 2008) had the authority to elect the four senators. A book could be written as to how this process went along as the Fata MNAs negotiated and bargained for days at a stretch and made strange deals to decide the outcome before the polling day.
The first written deal was that the tribal MNAs would field their own brothers or close relatives to become senators and each parliamentarian would receive Rs100 million from the pool of money collected from the sale proceeds. The initial spoiler in the game was a political party that is seeking to extend its reach beyond its strongholds. It got into the act and tried to seek one of the Senate seats from Fata by offering the tribal MNAs handsome amounts of money. The party backed off on the request of its more powerful and ruling political ally. The damage, however, was done as its intrusion created distrust between the tribal MPs and their deal-making was disturbed. Strangely enough, money was allegedly paid for voting and also for not voting. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise if two MNAs didn’t vote in the election for the Senate from Fata.
The electoral procedure for electing senators from Fata is an anomaly. The small number of voters, 12 to be precise, to elect four members of the Senate, is inherently flawed and would surely encourage buying and selling of votes. The sale and purchase of votes in the provincial assemblies for electing senators is also due to the fact that the number of voters is limited. Show of hands has been proposed for electing senators to prevent horse-trading in future. It merits serious attention as electoral reforms are needed to ensure that our lawmakers aren’t tempted to sell their votes and candidates using money are stopped from becoming members of the Senate.

The Senate for sale? by Rahimullah Yusufzai. The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com
Nothing much to change

By:Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi
The long awaited election of 54 members of the Senate, the upper house of the parliament, took place on March 2, enabling the PPP to emerge as the single largest political party in the Senate. The PML(N), the ANP and the MQM also made gains, becoming next three leading parties respectively. There was no surprise in this result because these parties were expected to lead in view of their standing in the provincial assemblies that constituted the Senate’s electoral-college.

The successful completion of the Senate election marks the realisation of one of the two goals set out by the PPP for 2012. The second goal is the national budget which is expected to be presented in late May for its approval by mid-June. This is going to be the election-budget and will set the stage for announcement of the election schedule in consultation with the federal coalition parties and the opposition, especially the PML(N).

The opposition political parties and a section of the media had been talking about the collapse of the PPP-led coalition government time and again since 2009. A number of definite dates surfaced in the media in 2011 when the military or the Supreme Court was expected to replace the federal government, including President Asif Ali Zardari, with an interim or technocrat government. The last deadline for the removal of the federal government passed in December 2011.

The results of the Senate elections have strengthened the position of the PPP in the political system. The recent by-elections to 10 national and provincial assemblies also showed that the PPP would continue to function as a political force in Pakistan.

The increased strength of the PPP in the Senate does not mean that its governance will improve. It is expected the muddle through to the next general elections before the end of the year. It will continue to face alienation within its party ranks and sharp criticism in the media but it is neither expected to collapse nor improve its performance. It may provide some economic relief to the common people in the next budget but it will not be able to address the structural problems of the economy.

It is easy to point out the deficiencies in the performance of the PPP-led federal government but there is no guarantee that its exit from power would significantly improve governance and salvage the economy. The opposition parties are no less short on strategies to address the current socio-economic and internal security problems. As a matter of fact, the PML(N), the main opposition party, is in power in the Punjab. Its performance is no better than that of the federal government.

The Senate has limited powers with no control over the budget, although it can recommend changes in the budget to the National Assembly. The latter is free to adopt or reject these recommendations. However, the PPP’s success gives a psychological boost to the party at a time when it is under strong pressure from the Supreme Court and, at times, from the military. The memo issue also haunts the federal government. Mansoor Ijaz, the author of the memo, has come out with a number of stories against President Zardari without providing concrete evidence. How could he get the information about the alleged communication between the army chief and the presidency regarding the May 2 American operation in Abbottabad? How could he claim to know about the flight of an F-16 aircraft? Either Mansoor is a fiction writer or so powerful that he gets confidential information both from Pakistan and the US?

This raises the issue about the nature of Pakistani state. Three Pakistani institutions, i.e. the military, the judiciary and the federal executive, are pre-occupied with one person’s statements whose credibility is yet to be established. The federal government is also faced with the pressure from the SC because of the contempt case against the PM. He faces the risk of being convicted for contempt of court. The SC has the constitutional and legal powers to remove an elected PM, thereby strengthening the tradition of removal of an elected prime minister by a non-elected institution.

However, if the coalition of four parties remains intact at the federal level, the political clout of the PPP will stay intact. It can get a new PM of its choice elected by the National Assembly who may continue with the present policies, including the issue of writing a letter to Swiss authorities.

The media and some opposition leaders have talked of the role of money for buying votes, although no concrete evidence has been provided in this respect. The role of money or manipulation can be possible where party loyalty is weak, as in Balochistan, or the electoral-college is too small, as in FATA. In other places, party loyalties have remained effective. The only exception was in the Punjab where a defector from the PML(Q) contested independently and defeated a PPP candidate because of his personal relations with some PPP members and the PML(N)’s desire to patronise defiance of PML(Q)’s leadership, the Chaudhrys.

Islamabad and the FATA are overrepresented in the Senate. Islamabad has four members and the FATA has 8 members. This representation needs to be rationalised. The most intriguing situation is in the FATA whose 8 senators (4 after every three years) are elected by 12 FATA members in the National Assembly. The smallness of the electoral-college creates the scope for easy manipulation and purchase of votes by money.

Purchase of vote by cash payment has to be distinguished from allocation of development funds to parliamentarian. Development funds are regularly given to all parliamentarians even if there are no elections. There is no concrete evidence available to suggest that votes were purchased in the Senate elections.

Politics is not expected to change much after the Senate elections. The federal government will continue with its survival struggle in the face of multiple challenges either from other state institutions and the opposition political forces or its own follies. Religious extremism and terrorism will continue to haunt governance and economic management.

This will continue to give enough opportunity to political critics, Islamists and private sector TV anchors to sermonise on the need of truthfulness, fair-play and corruption-free governance.

The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.


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