What do the senate elections and the Lux Style Awards have in common? Both events are flashy, high profile affairs in which small groups of people cast secret ballots to select winners from amongst a shortlist of candidates nominated by a panel of industry heavyweights. Similarly, both events are routinely marred by allegations of horse-trading, backstabbing, and general misconduct, as those denied nominations, as well as those who fail to win in their categories, accuse their rivals and the powers-that-be of engineering their defeats through underhand means. The proceedings of both are also characterized by long stretches filled with interminable monologues delivered by vacuous blowhards whose speechifying is occasionally punctuated with pithy pronouncements from the master of ceremonies and sudden and unexpected bouts of singing, dancing, and fighting involving the attendees. If it were not for the fact that the senate elections are marginally more entertaining than the Lux Style Awards, it would be virtually impossible to tell the two apart.
Much has been made of the PML-N’s ‘defeat’ at the hands of the Opposition parties in last week’s senate elections. In a sense, as many have correctly observed, it was clear that trouble was brewing when a group of rebellious PML-N legislators brought down Balochistan’s provincial government, setting the stage for the election of several ‘independent’ Baloch senators whose votes were crucial to the eventual election of the new Senate chairman. This expected yet unexpected development was accompanied by the alleged defection of several PML-N electors who used their votes in Punjab to ensure the selection of one senator from the PTI. While the PML-N eventually emerged as the single largest party in the Upper House, its strength falls short of an outright majority, and the Opposition has demonstrated that it has the numbers and the will to thwart the will of the government as and when required.
At one level, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Critics of the PML-N, for example, might point towards the party’s penchant for centralization and autocratic decision-making in government as reasons to be wary of handing it control of both houses of parliament. Indeed, many will remember how the passage of the 14th Amendment and the introduction of the 15th Amendment (which never passed) during the late 1990s were indicative of how Nawaz Sharif once possessed both the desire and the will had to bring about constitutional changes that would have left him in power for life. Inasmuch as the Senate exists to exercise a check on the National Assembly, and guard against the tyranny of the majority, the presence of a robust opposition is something that should ideally be welcomed.
The problem with this, of course, is that the motivations underpinning the Opposition’s stance in the Senate, as well as the machinations through which the Senate Chairman was elected, are tinged with the strong suspicion that non-democratic forces are involved in yet another attempt to prevent the emergence of a strong civilian government. The very nature of parliamentary politics in Pakistan is such that much of what happens is shrouded in secrecy; while the principal actors involved must obviously have a clearer view of what is actually going on, the secret ballot through which legislators elect senators, as well as the mechanisms through which they can initiate no-confidence motions against chief ministers, makes it difficult to categorically pin the blame for unexpected political developments on any particular actor. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s turbulent history of democratization, the destabilizing role played by the military establishment, the ongoing battle between the judiciary and the PML-N, and the timing of the disruptions leading up to the Senate Elections, all suggest that there is more to what is going on than meets the eye.
Moving forward, the PML-N’s defeat in the Senate may not necessarily translate into a long-term constraint on the party’s political fortunes. If the party loses its parliamentary majority in this year’s elections, it will nonetheless retain sizeable influence in the Senate and if it manages to win power once again, the levers of patronage and influence at its disposal should allow it to cobble together working majorities in the Upper House as and when required. If anything, the elections should have served to remind the PML-N that internal fissures, rather than external pressures, arguably remain the biggest threat to the stability of its government and the viability of its electoral plans. How the PML-N navigates and bridges the divides between its different factions will be the principal factor shaping the party’s political trajectory in a post-Nawaz era.
The senate elections have also demonstrated the pressing need for electoral reform. While much of the conversation around this issue has focused on the conduct of the general and provincial elections, the way legislators are elected to the Upper House is something that should also be scrutinized and improved. Allegations of vote-buying and horse-trading are not new to the senate elections and if these phenomena are rightly decried as being contrary to the spirit of democracy and representative government, it is imperative that steps be taken to remedy the situation.
Finally, while there are changes that could be made to make institutions like the Senate less susceptible to being captured or influenced by non-democratic actors, the fact remains that the manoeuvres allegedly being made by the establishment have always required civilian partners. After the end of the Musharraf dictatorship, back when the PML-N and the PPP signed the Charter of Democracy, there was a brief hope that Pakistan’s two largest parties would shed the politics of confrontation that had led to their mutual destruction in the 1990s, and that they would work together to consolidate the country’s emergent democratic system. The optimism of those early days appears to have been misplaced, with the relations between the two parties once again being defined by mistrust and opportunism. It is vital that the leaderships of both parties recognize that, as was the case in the 1990s, working against the interests of the democratic system in the pursuit of short-term political advantage will only lead to their collective undoing. The PPP, PML-N, and other mainstream parties must work together and pursue a politics of reconciliation, compromise, and accommodation if democracy is to thrive in this country.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.