The first thing that can be deemed positive about the recent Senate election is that they were held at all. There was either an effort to plunge these elections into confusion, or else the system is coming apart at the seams, because there have been enough departures from the script to show that these elections are not the simple reflections of party strength they are supposed to be.

Perhaps the biggest reality to emerge from these polls is that the PML(N), which is now the largest party in the House, is set to have its nominee become the Senate Chairman. This not only means that it will have a stronghold on the Presidency for the rest of Mamnoon Hussain’s tenure, but will enjoy a veto on legislation in the Parliament to be elected this year. It also enjoys a majority in both Houses for the first time since it took office, but it is unlikely to pass much legislation in the remaining months of this tenure. Also, perhaps more crucially, it has not been able to obtain the two-thirds majority it needs to make constitutional amendments without the help of other parties. It has a two-thirds majority in Parliament`s Lower House, but this will last only for the duration of this government. There seems no way it can so legislate as to allow Mian Nawaz Sharif once again to become eligible for the Prime Ministership. Also, even this Lower House two-thirds majority might not survive the next election, even if the government survives, which is itself no certainty.

It seems to be a situation which leaves no one satisfied. The PML(N) will be able to legislate, but it will not be able to remove its leader’s disabilities; other parties will not be able to legislate, not without the PML(N)’s agreement. The Senate elections have thus created a situation where the coming elections will create a government subject to legislative paralysis. A PML(N) government will have to wait until the 2021 Senate elections to produce a House where it has a two-thirds majority, provided of course that it does well enough in the provincial assembly elections that take place this year. A PPP government would find itself in the same position as in 1988 and 1993, facing an opposition majority in the Upper House, as would a PTI government.

It should be noted that the PML(N)’s majority is not absolute. It is the largest parliamentary party, but it is well short of a majority, even if the JUI(F) and the PkMAP Senators join them (and there is no guarantee that these alliances would survive the PML(N)’s exit from office). It needs the support of the FATA members, who are independents in the House. Again, that support is unlikely to outlast a PML(N) ouster from office.

The PML(N) had to overcome the disadvantage of having its President disqualified just before the poll, and his actions after disqualification as an MNA nullified. The immediate consequence was the cancellation of the Senate tickets he had issued. That meant the PML(N) Senators elected were technically independents, though those who voted for them were party MPAs and MNAs. That disadvantage can be overcome by these independents joining the already existing PML(N) parliamentary party. However, there are the independents from Balochistan, who apparently think of themselves as free agents. This time, they want the Chairman from that province. While the Deputy Chairman has long come from there, the Chairman has not. Mix in party rivalry, and the recipe is for confusion.

Perhaps the most troubled party was the MQM (P), which hastily patched up its split by including Farooq Sattar nominee Khalid Tessori in the final list of candidates. The split was not really overcome, and the MQM lost the seat Tessori should have won to the PPP. One reason given is that MQM MPAs voted for the PPP candidate.

This is the first indication that the election does not simply go according to party lines, but according to the will of MPAs, who are thus subjected to pressure as well as accusations of horsetrading. KP and Balochistan MPAs are notorious for electing mavericks, mainly because their votes count for more. This is because both are relatively small Houses, and an equal number of Senators are elected by each province. It must be remembered that the Senate represents the federating units, while the National Assembly represents the people, of Pakistan. It might be remembered that Gilgit-Baltistan, does not have representation in the Senate, though mentioned in the Constitution as a constituent, the Federally Administered Northern Area.

The PPP was accused of horsetrading in the Sindh Assembly, the PTI in the Punjab Assembly, and the PML(N) in the National Assembly. The PPP is not accusing anyone as an affected party, but the PML(N) and the PTI have both accused each other and been accused. The PML(N) is already tarnished by Mian Nawaz’s disqualification, but the PTI is being held to a higher standard. It should be noted that the PTI is coming under fire because of Ch Sarwar, who was introduced into Pakistani politics by the PML(N), which appointed him Punjab Governor after he had retired from Parliament in the UK, where he had actually begun his political career. The accusers have been asked to put up (or presumably shut up) by the Election Commission of Pakistan. The PTI has resented these summons, saying that the ECP should itself carry out investigations.

While PTI does stand accused, it is also the only party to propose a solution. Party chief Imran Khan has suggested that there should either be direct elections or there should be a party-list system, like that for women’s reserved seats. While direct elections are attractive, the number of senators from each province makes a direct election difficult without a single transferable vote. If elections are held every four months, only then will it be possible to avoid the single transferable vote. That vote causes enough trouble to the MPAs, to make it unwise to introduce for the average voter. The idea of converting an indirect election into a direct was popularised by the American example, where Senators were originally elected by the state legislatures, with a conversion to direct state-wide elections coming only in the course of the 19th century. The USA has only two Senators per state, and thus it is possible to have direct elections twice in six years, with no election in one of the biennial cycles. With 19 Senators per province, this would become unwieldy. As the Senate Chairman has to be elected after each Senate poll, so if there is indeed a Senate poll every four months, that would be the limit of the Chairman’s term.

There is the alternate of the list system, but that would not account for the ‘part-seats’ in the command of most parties. Much of the interest of Senate elections comes from the combinations which allow unlikely candidates to get in. Imran Khan should realise that Ch Sarwar would probably not have been elected under that system.

However, there will only be a desire to change the system if the Senate itself showed that there is a need to reform it. The US Senate had to be changed because the Senate itself became increasingly powerful, even more so than the House of Representatives, even though its members were directly elected. Though it had the same powers as the House, the Senate was smaller, and its members had a longer term. Already, the Pakistani Senate is merely a revising chamber, which does not take part in the forming or breaking of governments.

Unless it becomes more powerful, which is not possible under a parliamentary system, the Senate will continue to be the place where a few ministers, who don’t have seats in the National Assembly, are parked, and where the debate may be of higher quality than in the ‘other place’, but which will continue to have less power. No matter how much it imitates other, more powerful, upper chambers.


n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.