Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s proposal to use open ballot in the Senate elections has caught everyone by surprise. Given the widespread allegations of horse trading and cronyism in the past Senate elections and being so close to the upcoming election, nobody believes the proposal has come out of a genuine desire to uphold the people’s trust in their elected representatives. The doubt is reinforced by the further proposal to disqualify a parliamentarian who votes against party instructions in the Senate elections. In the prevailing political culture of this country, proposed reforms would only empower the party bosses at the expense of the elected parliamentarians. Indeed, given the dominance of party bosses over their respective parties, the proposal might comfortably carry the day even on such short notice.

The trick here is a simple one: by accusing their own parliamentarians of demeaning the spirit of democracy, the party bosses would be able to secure the success of their personal favorites in the name of the public at large. It is a pretty neat trick: the party bosses would be able to have their cake and eat it too. However, in light of Pakistan’s democratic trajectory, it would not be a bad development at all.

It must be remembered that the primary interest of an ordinary voter in the upcoming Senate elections lies in having Senators who have the will and the competence to reform the laws of the land and hold the government accountable on the basis of these laws. As discussed above, this interest can be secured neither by open ballot nor by disqualifying unruly parliamentarians as both these proposals would merely empower the party bosses. However, if these proposals are accepted, the burden of establishing the credentials of senatorial candidates would fall entirely, squarely, and exclusively on the shoulders of the party bosses. In turn, the greater public visibility and accountability of party bosses compared to their underlings would make it easier for the citizenry to question the wisdom of nominating particular individuals as candidates for the Senate. Moreover, having practically eliminated the parliamentarians from the Senate calculus, eliminating the party bosses and opting for direct elections for the Senate would become the next logical step.

All in all, the Prime Minister’s proposal is definitely a step in the right direction and should be supported whole-heartedly by the citizenry.