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Pakistan Reader# 167, 19 March 2021

Senate Chairman Elections in Pakistan: Eight Takeaways

Between the government and the opposition, there are no winners

Rishabh Yadav

The recent Senate elections to the posts of Chairman and Deputy chairman underlines the deep malaise of Pakistan's politics - the absence of intra-party democratic process in choosing candidates, using money to get into the august house and changing loyalties during the voting process. This reflects an immediate need for a national dialogue on electoral reforms and practices.

The elections for the Islamabad Senate seat and Senate chairman were mired with controversy. Despite the government having a majority in the national assembly, PTI candidate Haffez Shaikh lost the Islamabad election ("Senate elections: PPP's Yousaf Raza Gilani defeats Hafeez Shaikh," The News International, 3 March 2021). Later, for the election of Senate Chairman, opposition candidate Yousaf Raza Gilani lost; seven votes were rejected on farcical technical grounds by the presiding officer (Nasir Iqbal, "Rejection of votes in Senate chairman poll triggers controversy," Dawn, 13 March 2021). 

While both the above elections were a major upset for the losing side, they offer reflections on the current political system and stake for each political actor in the current confrontational political environment. One could identify the following seven trends/issues.

First, the Establishment remains a potent actor with an ability to manage the outcome of the elections. Its 'neutral' posture in the Senate election for Islamabad seat allowed political and strategic space for the opposition to manoeuvre electoral outcome in their favour (Amir Wasim, "Gilani sees establishment 'neutral' in Senate election," The Dawn, 23 February 2021). The interventionist's attitude in the Chairman's election made way for the government's candidate to win the coveted post.  

Second, civil-military relations are not on the same page. PTI's loss in the Senate election was a signal to Imran Khan about his vulnerability and the Establishment's ambiguities in supporting him.

Third, the Establishment is not comfortable with fresh elections. Imran Khan's threat after Islamabad loss to go for a fresh election if things worsen was an attempt to hit the right mark against the Establishment (Rizwan Ghilzai, "Keep Option of fresh election open, PM tells party," The Express Tribune, 18 March 2021). While the Islamabad election signalled, everything is not well between Imran Khan and the Establishment, the election for the Senate Chairman showed that the Establishment is not yet ready to sacrifice Imran Khan until and unless a solution for in-house change is found. 

Fourth, the PTI remains a divided house. The disagreement of party workers with the leadership over the distribution of tickets for the senate elections made it amply clear that the workers were not taken into confidence in the decision making process (Fahd Husain, "Tickets to trouble," Dawn, 18 February 2021). Further, the cross-voting in the Islamabad Senate election has shown that the divide between elected and unelected continues within the PTI. Imran Khan also has to look over his shoulders in keeping the party united.

Fifth, the loss of the Chairman's election for the opposition marks the end of the second phase of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). While the first phase saw Nawaz Sharif taking a hawkish stance against the government and Establishment, the second phase saw a conciliatory tone vis-a-vis the Establishment with Zardari coming at the forefront advocating an in-house change through parliamentary measures. The election loss will again make PML-N and JUI-F return to aggressive posture. 

Sixth, the difference between PPP and the rest of the PDM parties is going to heighten. The loss of the Chairman's seat despite having numbers have made PML-N and JUI-F confident that the non-confidence motion in such an environment will be a futile exercise. Both PML-N and JUI-F will argue for resigning from national and provincial assemblies with which PPP is uncomfortable. The debate over the future strategy of the movement is bound to create some fissures within the coalition. 

Seventh, the more significant problem of the Senate elections in Pakistan. The phenomenon of buying and selling votes is an existent feature of Pakistan's polity. The ability of rich and influential people to buy senate seats at the expense of party workers problematises the notion of party loyalty. These influential candidates look for individual benefits against the party stand and are therefore more prone to sell their votes. Secondly, such a system alienates party workers from the party. Without any mechanism to air grievances, dissent is shown by voting against the party's decision.

Eighth, the Senate elections has supplemented the dilemma for each political actor. For the Establishment, it is increasingly becoming difficult to support Imran Khan's government that is functioning poorly. At the same time, it does not want PDM to call out the Establishment in the public discourse. For Imran Khan, it has become important to keep a firm eye on the opposition's next move and not let it sway the establishment and government allies for their cause. The opposition now needs to reconfigure the following strategy for the movement. In this process, the differences are bound to emerge, and therefore it has become of utmost importance for the parties to take into account each other's position and not to let the movement fizzle away. Finally, the result of Senate elections has shown that the Establishment maintains the political system through its ability to engineer outcomes.


About the author

Rishabh Yadav is enrolled in the Contemporary Pakistan Course with NIAS, Bengaluru. He has completed his MA in Politics (International and Area Studies) from the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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