Monday, March 5, 2018

Business Recorder Column March 5, 2018

Senate elections and after

Rashed Rahman

The dust had barely settled on the Senate elections on the 52 seats of the retiring members or half the house when the results indicated that the rumours of horse-trading may not have been without foundation. Both Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan have asked for investigation of the alleged horse-trading since all the results do not square with the respective parties’ strength in the Assemblies. PPP’s surprise showing of 12, the second highest tally of seats after the PML-N’s 15, has given birth to a rash of reports and comments painting Asif Zardari as the ‘evil genius’ of this corruption of the democratic process.
That perception may owe something to Asif Zardari’s reputation and his alleged role in toppling the PML-N-led coalition government in Balochistan on the eve of the Senate elections. PPP emissaries’ dash to Quetta immediately after the Senate elections serves to firm up suspicions in this regard. The chief minister installed after this parliamentary ‘coup’ in Quetta, Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, inadvertently indulged in rich irony when he denied any horse-trading in the Senate elections when he and his government have still to come out from under the shadow of being installed through such means themselves.
The anomalies in the results include former governor and ex-PML-N member Chaudhry Mohammad Sarwar’s victory in Punjab with 44 votes when his current party, the PTI, only has 30 MPAs in the Punjab Assembly. This has set off a flurry of internal debates within the Punjab PML-N, with Chief Minister and recently anointed interim head of the PML-N Shahbaz Sharif being reportedly annoyed with his son Hamza for the failure to ‘handle’ the PML-N Punjab Assembly flock in the desired manner. Of course point man Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah has attempted to cover up by denying any investigation has been ordered and even suggesting Sarwar’s extra 14 votes may have come from the opposition ranks.
Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has initiated an investigation into the PTI’s MPAs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) who may have voted against their party’s directive. However, he has glossed over if not ignored reports that his own party fielded rich candidates in the hope they would be able to ‘outbid’ their rivals and thus retain the PTI flock within the party’s enclosure. In the KP Assembly too it is the PPP’s performance that is being looked at askance for garnering a surprising 26 votes with barely any significant presence in that Assembly.
MQM-Pakistan’s Farooq Sattar appears unnerved by only being able to get one Senate seat. He has tried to shift the blame onto Asif Zardari’s alleged horse-trading. There may be some truth in that allegation but the MQM’s own splintering is a factor that is difficult to ignore.
Despite some angst, the political class as a whole appears to have swallowed horse-trading in the Senate elections as something not much could be done about in the presence of a secret ballot. Nor do we hear any clear and unequivocal voices criticising the demeaning of the democratic process for the upper house by openly talked about corruption of the vote. This moral blindsidedness does not bode well for the civilian side of our polity, already reeling under the attack from non-elected forces and institutions.
The next chapter unfolding is the election of the Senate Chairman and Deputy Chairman. Raza Rabbani proved an outstanding Chairman, but his PPP’s position in the new arithmetic in the upper house requires either an understanding with the PML-N (unlikely in the climate of confrontation by the PPP that Asif Zardari has triggered of late) or an attempt to gather the required 33 votes from the rest of the opposition to add to its 20 and get over the majority finish line of 53 in a house of 104. That opposition of course includes the PTI, but that is an uncertain prospect. Failing to get the required numbers, the PPP may not be able to stop the PML-N from having its way, given the momentum of its 15-seat victory that has brought its tally in the upper house to 33, requiring 20 votes to romp home. Momentum is what best describes the PML-N’s trajectory after Nawaz Sharif’s removal as prime minister by the Supreme Court. This is evidenced not only by the size of the rallies he has been addressing, with the latest in Gujrat just one day after the Senate polls, but also by the fact that the PML-N has won four by-elections in a row, the last in Sargodha the other day, with healthy and increasing majorities.
Astute and experienced observers of our political scene are not surprised by this turn of events, ascribing it to Nawaz Sharif’s ‘defiance’, our political culture’s penchant for siding with the underdog, and the PML-N’s vote bank in Punjab intact if not growing. That electoral support may owe a great deal to the political culture of patronage at which the PML-N has proved so adept over the years, but in an amoral polity, it does not seem to bother too many.
The people of this benighted country therefore seem stuck between the amorality of its political class and the acceptance of that amorality, nay benefiting from it, by a large section of the electorate.
The struggle for democracy in Pakistan, which has consumed our energies and lives for 70 years, was long considered a necessary road to traverse if the people’s rights were to be advocated and achieved. The argument went that in contrast with military dictatorship (the only other pole we have known in our existence), democracy, no matter how flawed, offered the possibility of expressing the people’s needs and grievances and with critical mass achieved, forcing incumbent governments to pay heed to these issues and problems. But unfortunately, with the powers-that-be bent upon strangling freedom of expression and dealing with critical voices through enforced disappearances and the like, that argument today regarding space for people’s struggles under even a flawed democracy stands weakened, if not threatened.
It may be premature to be venturing onto this turf when the Senate elections have just concluded, the Senate Chairman and Deputy Chairman elections are looming and the general elections are beckoning on the horizon, but serious thinkers, advocates, and those struggling for the people’s voice and rights need to go back to the strategy drawing board to rethink this paradigm and suggest alternatives that can advance a floundering people’s rights cause. That may not be possible without an updated knowledge of the world and Pakistan’s place in it in the 21st century, with Pakistan’s internal political, economic and social dynamic underpinning a possible new path and strategy to bring the people back in force onto the stage of history.

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