The commodification of legislation

Published: March 7, 2018
The writer is a graduate student at SOAS, University of London

The writer is a graduate student at SOAS, University of London

The secret-ballot proportional voting system used to elect members of the Senate has frequently and recently been exposed as a farce. The problematic process of allowing legislators to secretly cast their votes opens the gates to horse-trading and outright corruption.

It is an open secret in Pakistan that seats in the Senate can often be bought and sold. They are a result of political negotiations and barter. This has caused the commodification of legislation in the country, where the highest bidder can easily purchase entry into the Senate along with the various perks and influence that come with it. The commodification of legislation means that the ability to legislate can be bought, like other goods on the market.

In the recent Senate elections, the results from across the country were disproportional to the share of provincial assembly seats for nearly all parties. The PML-N was perhaps the only party to keep most of its loyalties intact, except for the leaking out of one Senate seat in Punjab in favour of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Chaudhry Sarwar.

While Sarwar’s win from Punjab is being touted as proof of disillusionment with the ruling PML-N in Punjab, there is a bigger story to be told. The PTI only had a strength of 31 votes, it bagged 44 for Sarwar. The PPP had a strength of merely 7 votes in Punjab but was able to lure 19 further votes for its candidate making its total vote count 26.

Perhaps merely as karma, or as a result of other forces, the PTI reportedly lost 17 votes in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly which should have gone towards their chosen candidates. It is unsurprising, then, that even Imran Khan could not be bothered to cast his vote in the Senate elections.

The lost votes in K-P were picked up by the PPP and the JUI-F. The PPP won two Senate seats in K-P despite only having 7 members in the provincial assembly. Such results outflank logic and numerical computations.

The PPP’s remarkable Senate sweep didn’t end in the north of the country. In Sindh, it was able to take 10 seats despite having adequate representation for only 7. In Balochistan, it magically won two seats without having a single party member in the assembly.

There is a clear need for investigation into the processes that allow for such events to unfold. The Election Commission is unable to take action, as voting in the Senate elections is at the discretion of the lawmakers. There is no binding obligation on lawmakers to vote for their party.

The cure for this ruse may be sought in the disavowing of proportional voting by legislators and shifting to a mechanism of direct elections by the people for the Senate. It is an inherent duty of the upper house to act as a counter-balance for the lower house, the National Assembly. It is for this reason that the allocation of seats differs between the houses. A method of direct voting could keep intact the provincial equality maintained by the Senate while allowing for changing political opinions of the masses to be represented.

This could be done by holding direct elections to replace outgoing senators between the tenure of the National Assembly. This would ensure that political parties can’t easily consolidate power and centralise legislation by hijacking the Senate through horse-trading and using electoral legitimacy.

A shift towards direct Senate elections would follow suit from similar practices in modern democracies across the globe. It would also take undue power away from legislators who are currently able to impact legislative matters outlasting their tenure, by picking senators who decide on them years after the voting legislators leave office.

There is little doubt in light of numerical evidence that the recent Senate elections saw many legislators vote against the interest of their parties and in doing so, against the wishes of the voters.

While rigid party loyalties make for undemocratic practices, the outright commodification of Senate seats is a scandal and damages the core of Pakistan’s democratic evolution.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2018.

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