Lessons from the upper house

No democracy should allow such desensitisation towards the literal buying of votes by independent candidates

Hassan Niazi March 06, 2018
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and also teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He holds an LLM from New York University where he was a Hauser Global Scholar. He tweets @HNiaziii

The dust hasn’t quite settled on the Senate elections, and perhaps the next few days will result in more allegations, pontifications, and revelations. In spite of that, with the elections fresh in our minds, now is as good a time as any to examine the role the often-forgotten Senate plays in our democracy and what this election has shown us about the flawed process for determining its members.

First: why should we care about the Senate? Our Constitution gives it limited powers after all (compare the powers of the American Senate with our own) and its members are elected through a rather mystifying process known as the single transferable vote. A process few people in our democracy are properly versed in. Given these things, it is easy to disregard the Senate’s role in our country. However, the Senate is supposed to fulfil an important role in parliament, ie, of providing an equal voice to each of the units comprising our federation independent of population size. The drafters of the 1973 Constitution constantly emphasised that the Senate’s role lay in counteracting majoritarian domination of the legislature by certain provinces with larger populations. An effective Senate, which includes members versed in legislative reform and drafting, can act as an invaluable chamber for refining legislation passed by the National Assembly. Then there is the obvious importance: without a majority in the Senate no single political party can legislate without making at least a few compromises. The PML-N is familiar with this; having faced setbacks because of it not having control over the Senate. In short, we should care about the Senate’s role in our democracy the same way we care about the National Assembly.

So, the Senate is important. If it hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t have been such pandemonium over the fact that the Supreme Court forced the PML-N’s hopefuls to run independently. Yet, now that the elections have happened, what impact did the Supreme Court’s decision really have on the entire process? Was removing Nawaz Sharif as the head of the PML-N disastrous? Did it matter?

It seems not. The PML-N bagged the most seats with only one, rather incredulous, upset in Punjab courtesy of the PTI. This shows that despite twin decisions against it by the Supreme Court, there is still the perception that there is value in the PML-N ticket. By transitioning leadership from Nawaz to Shehbaz, the PML-N has sustained the impression that it can weather the storm unleashed by the Panama Papers. Its narrative of institutional bias seems to convince more people by the day. It was vital for the PML-N to project the image of unity if it wanted to avoid disintegration in the Senate elections. The MQM failed to do so — and suffered for it. With a disastrous result that raises questions for its future. The decision in Panama was supposed to send the PML-N in disarray, however, that prediction never came to pass. As we inch closer to the general elections, it seems that it won’t be the Panama narrative that will dislodge Nawaz’s party.

Questions abound whether the independent candidates backed by the PML-N will stay true to their word. Defections could jeopardise the PML-N’s position and it would be directly because of the Supreme Court decision. Although there is a possibility of this happening, it seems very unlikely. There is no incentive for the independent candidates to jump ship to any other political party when the PML-N ticket seems to be currently the best chance at re-election. The PML-N has been under constant fire for the last year because of Panama but has suffered little rebellion within its ranks. If parties like the PTI were to try and incentivise independent candidates to jump ship it would have to potentially break promises with its own party members who, as the Lodhran election showed, are already splintering into two groups within the party. So, the prospects of defection are unlikely. The PML-N backed independents will do as they are told.

The most important lesson that these elections have taught us is that horse-trading has become alarmingly normalised in our country. Money matters if you are vying for the Senate. Both the PTI and the MQM have raised questions against the PPP for indulging in horse-trading and buying its senators. We need to understand that the Senate’s method of indirect elections is the leading cause behind this malignant disease cheapening the democratic process. Indirect elections result in a smaller pool of voters, and this makes it easier to buy votes as opposed to direct elections. The single transferable vote system’s biggest flaw lies in its ability to allow rich independents to contest Senate elections and shower money on a small group of voters to get them past the finish line. What happened in Balochistan is an egregious example of this in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Zehri government. Horse-trading ran rampant and very few people batted an eye even when it was happening right under their nose. No democracy should allow such desensitisation towards the literal buying of votes by independent candidates. This election has shown us that we need to reform the electoral process of the Senate. Direct elections are the most obvious cure, and quite frankly would also allow an argument to be made to enhance the Senate’s power. The introduction of direct elections needs to be seriously debated before the next round of Senate elections.

While the issue of horse-trading has tainted the electoral process, the only person Imran Khan has to blame for tainting the reputation of his party is himself. The PTI chief didn’t even bother voting which raises questions regarding his commitment to the democratic cause. One can’t really change the game if they are unwilling to play. Plus, what image does this send to his own party’s Senate hopefuls? With general elections so near, Imran Khan can’t afford such nonchalance.

The Senate elections have thus shown us the success of the PML-N narrative; the unlikely nature of defections amongst the independents it has backed; the cheapening of democracy through horse-trading; and a self-inflicted blow to the PTI. There are a few points to cheer though. Concerns over a so-called ‘script’ by covert powers claiming that Senate elections would be delayed proved unfounded. The smooth Senate elections provide a milestone for our democracy — especially in the face of the usual theories regarding something sinister at play in the background.

We must still wait for the true milestone, the most elusive one: a democratic transition through the general elections. Every single party must aim to make sure that happens regardless of how they feel about one another. It is perhaps the only way. We have tinkered too long with the alternatives. Let us not lose sight of the need to reform our Senate’s election process because if we do proceed to a legitimate democratic transition we will need a strong Senate. Staffed with people who know what it means to legislate rather than those best suited to fill a party’s coffers. What we currently have is simply not good enough.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 6th, 2018.

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