In a matter of 24 hours the process of electing 52 new senators will be conducted. This involves a complicated and cumbersome method featuring proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote system. Several parliamentary parties have in the past turned to coaching their members about the process which as recently as 2012 cost the Pakistan Peoples Party a single seat. This time the stakes seem to be higher as the Senate elections have gained more significance for a number of reasons. Since late last year speculation had been building that the polls might not even take place amidst the tussle between the ruling PML-N and the powers that be. This turned out to be untrue however because not only are the Senate polls taking place, but they are also being held on time.
A large number of independent candidates are contesting the polls this year. This may in part be due to the February 21st court decree barring former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from heading his mainstream faction of the Pakistan Muslim League. As per the apex court order, all decisions taken by Nawaz Sharif as the PML-N chief stood nullified from the day he was disqualified by the court as a lawmaker and subsequently as prime minister on July 28, 2017. The decree had an immediate impact on PML-N candidates who were awarded party tickets by Nawaz Sharif. It also created an unusual and unprecedented situation for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). Since there were no prescribed rules to address the situation, the poll supervisory body discussed various options and decided to declare all PML-N ticket holders independents.
The ECP later justified its action, claiming it was the only way to avoid any delay in conducting the polls. All other options would have certainly led to the postponement of the election schedule. Law experts however seemed divided over the legality of the ECP decision with many of them questioning and decrying the move. Apart from legal considerations, it certainly beefed up the number of candidates running as independents. Already a number of candidates were contesting as independents from Fata and Balochistan. Use of money to buy votes is no more a secret, especially when it comes to those running as independents, particularly from these two areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
In many cases the leaders of political parties prefer wealthy candidates to ideological workers. If wealth is not the main criterion, all other factors which fall under nepotism play an important role in the choice of candidates by the top leadership of political parties. Merit is increasingly becoming a rare commodity in such exercises. Like in the past, once again there are reports that some independents have been making lucrative offers of hundreds of millions of rupees to secure a seat. There are suggestions that the price of cooperation has gone up to a whopping one billion rupees. The Senate is after all one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. There should be an end to such shameful practices.
It would be unfair to blame only the ECP for the ills in the country’s electoral system. The principal responsibility in this regard lies with political parties and their top leadership. As a first step, they need to ensure that merit considerations are not overlooked. Senate members are elected by the indirect vote. They don’t need to field winning horses or electable candidates in the Senate polls. It is the elected members of assemblies who vote to elect Senate members. Before espousing noble-sounding values like the supremacy of parliament, our political clique needs to uphold the sanctity of the elected houses. For that it is important to encourage merit every step of the way and discourage the use of big money. Robust efforts must be made to prevent the Senate from becoming an elite club.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2018.
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