The Senate elections have taken place, and the PPP has obtained those seats which have given it its largest ever presence in that house since 1977. The elections have also produced a two-thirds majority for the PPP and its allies, the ANP and the MQM, even though both the absence of a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and of any major constitutional legislation, make it of limited importance. What further limits its importance is the fact that there is no apparent constitutional legislation on the agenda of the other party likely to form the government after the next election, the PML-N. If it had some such plan, the PPP could have used its Senate position to bargain on such legislation, for it would have had a veto on it.

One immediate consequence has been that the idea floated, that the Punjab Assembly might be dissolved, has proved incorrect, and the PML-N has proved as desirous as other parties of taking part in the process. The PML-N has also seen the process of MPAs, or ex-MPAs, going to the Senate. The Senate apparently provides an easy means whereby someone involved in provincial politics, may make the transition to the national scene. There is also the concept of senatorial privilege, which though it has not become a constitutional convention in Pakistan, is one in the USA, whereby if a Senator is nominated for any office, his colleagues help him breeze through the confirmation process. However, since Senators no longer accept office requiring such confirmation, there is little use of senatorial privilege by US Senators. On the face of it, election to the Senate would attract MPAs, but since the elections are by the Provincial Assemblies on the basis of the single transferable vote of the members, those MPAs would have to gain the support of their party leaders, something which would only happen under special circumstances.

This control of the parties is the reason for the consternation at the PPP’s failure to elect Aslam Gill, a Senator from the Punjab, and the election, instead of Mohsin Leghari, whom the PML-Q did not give a ticket, even though he described himself as a member, and for which he had been elected an MPA. The MPAs are elected on the basis of mutually exclusive, first-past-the-post constituencies, in a wide variety of circumstances, but the single-transferable vote system by which they elect Senators is such that the Senate results can be predicted in advance, provided that MPAs vote as directed.

As Gill’s non-election shows, not only must party leaders, or rather managers at such elections, must understand the system thoroughly, but the MPAs themselves must stay loyal. The PPP has set the intelligence agencies to find out the MPAs, who did not follow the instructions they received. Their identification may be a satisfaction to the PPP, but there is no certainty they will be voting again in a Senate election. The voters are the MPAs, which means that, unless they are re-elected, they will only vote in the elections that take place during the term of their Assembly. As half the membership of the Senate retires every election, and it is the House that is never dissolved (except when martial law is imposed, which has occurred twice since the promulgation of the current Constitution). Because of this, the Senators are guaranteed their full tenure, as opposed to MPAs or MNAs, who have faced premature (and sudden) dissolutions in all houses, but the last. Because of this, the Senators now retiring, who were elected in 2006, reflect the composition of the Provincial Assemblies as they existed then, and it is only now that the Assemblies called into existence by the 2008 election are fully reflected in the Senate.

It should be made clear that the Senate resembles the US Senate, rather than the Roman Senate, and the Senators represent the provinces, rather than the people of those states, who are represented in the National Assembly, where the members are elected in constituencies that comprise roughly co-equal populations. That is another reason why the Provincial Assemblies elect the Senators, because those Assemblies have as members those elected by the people of the province. When the National Assembly elects Senators for Islamabad, it is acting as its Provincial Assembly, a role provided for it in the Constitution, just as much as the FATA MNAs elect the FATA Senators because FATA, as its name says, is federally administered, and lacks a provincial government.

Perhaps, what the whole to-do was about was the election of the Senate Chairman. Farooq Naek, the incumbent, who found that his office was suddenly challenged. The Senate Chairman is also, as in the USA, the Vice President. However, while the US Vice President is elected in a general election, and has as his main function waiting for the succession to the presidency to open up, the Pakistani Chairman has no intrinsic right of succession to the presidency - an office in which he acts only when there is a vacancy, or if the incumbent is unable to perform his functions.

Also, he is elected to the office only after he is first elected a Senator. It is assumed to be one of the great offices where the province should be considered before it is filled.

Traditionally, this office has been reserved for the Punjab, Waseem Sajjad filling the office from 1988, but Naek assuming the office after the PPP took control of the office. The questions marks over Naek seem to have more to do with his performance as Acting President than as Senate Chairman, particularly during President Asif Zardari’s illness last year. The suggestion was first made that he be replaced by a Senator from Balochistan, as a means of alleviating the sense of deprivation in that province, but two things probably could have worked against this. First, the President, probably, could not find someone he trusted enough to act in his place from among the PPP Senators from the province. Then there was, probably, the realisation that this step would not placate the people of the province, as it would merely place a privileged person in an important position. The Baloch do not seem to have been brought into the national mainstream even by the appointment of Zafarullah Khan Jamali as Prime Minister, so it does not seem that giving an important post to a Baloch is any guarantee that other Baloch will thereby have their sense of deprivation removed.

It seems that the post of Deputy Chairman will continue to be reserved to Balochistan. However, the present incumbent, Jan Mohammad Jamali, a former Chief Minister of the province, is one of the outgoing Senators, and is thus not a contender for the office. It may seem strange that a house elected by the provinces cannot play a larger role in solving the problems faced by a province, but it was meant as a ‘revising’ upper house in a federal legislature.

One advantage gained by the PPP is that it ensured that in the life of the next National Assembly, there will be a time, until the next Senate election in 2015, when the party will have a majority in one house of Parliament, and thus a veto over all legislation, even if it loses its majority in the National Assembly. This is the mirror image of the situation the PPP found itself in after it won the 1988 election, but had no members in the Senate. It, probably, would not mind having this control, though it would be changed in the next Senate election, but not entirely reversed.

n    The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of TheNation.