The upper house of Parliament, the Senate of Pakistan, includes retired generals, clerics, feudals, business magnates, barristers and beauticians. In March 2012, half of the Senate will complete its term and fifty-four new senators will be elected by an electoral college comprising of members of the National and provincial assemblies.
The major loser in the March 2012 Senate elections will be General Musharraf’s now abandoned brainchild, the PML-Q, which will face a near wipeout. The big winner will be the PPP, who is set to gain almost a near-majority in the 104-member Senate. The PML-N is expected to increase its senators from seven to 13, whereas ANP will make similar gains, from six to 10 senators. The MQM will remain at its current strength of six senators.
The expected PPP gains in the Senate are being hailed as the ultimate victory for President Zardari. In fact, some analysts are suggesting that if the PPP is able to gain near majority in the Senate, it will be game over for the PML-N. Some PPP enthusiasts have even jumped to the conclusion that gains in the Senate will ensure a second term for Asif Ali Zardari as president.
Pouring cold water over such lofty expectations, PML unification block member Tahir Ali Javed has suggested that Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif move to dissolve the Punjab Assembly and thus obstruct the upcoming Senate elections in March 2012. This reaction is not entirely unexpected. In response, PPP parliamentarians have moved privilege motions in the Punjab Assembly as well as the Senate, and are claiming that this is a conspiracy against democracy. And the party’s Babar Awan has said that those who are “trying to break the senate will be charged with breaking the Constitution”, as in treason.
The dissolution of the Punjab Assembly would delay the constitution of the Senate, at least to the extent of the election of 12-13 senators by the Punjab Assembly, perhaps even more, but for the PML-N it will mean losing its government in Punjab. In the ultimate analysis, this may be too high a price to pay for the PML-N, especially, if one considers that the PPP’s near-majority in the Senate will have little meaning in the run-up to the general elections. Contrary to what many people may think, the Senate does not have the capability on its own to foil the legislative agenda of a party which has a majority in the National Assembly. If a bill originates in the National Assembly and is rejected by the Senate, the same can be put to vote in a joint sitting of both houses of parliament. If it comes to voting on legislation in a joint sitting, senators will have only 23 per cent of the total voting power, and members of the National Assembly will have the rest. Therefore, a mere majority of votes in the joint session will ensure effective passage for the proposed legislation, notwithstanding the majority control of the Senate by a hostile opposition party in 2013.
Also, near-majority control of the Senate will have little bearing on the election of the next presidential election in 2013. The electoral college for a presidential election comprises of the four provincial assemblies, the national assembly and the Senate. This means that the four provincial assemblies will hold 36.8 per cent of the voting power, whereas the National Assembly and Senate will each hold 48.9 per cent and 14.7 per cent of the votes respectively. Thus, even in a Presidential election, the real control will lie with the MPAs and MNAs who will be elected in general elections to be held in 2013 or earlier.
The March 2012 gains in the Senate may help the PPP accommodate a few more financial heavyweight supporters in the upper house, but will provide the ruling coalition no immunity from voter disillusionment come elections in 2013. Most importantly, even after gaining control in the Senate, the PPP will continue to remain hostage at the hands of its allies.
Therefore, raising political stakes for the Senate election in March 2012 may prove to be a wasteful distraction. The real political battle worthy of rolling sleeves is the general election scheduled in 2013.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2011.