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Talking senate

March 08, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

THE apocryphal could well apply to the PTI: you can count on the PTI to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else. Unhappily, there’s no Churchill in the PML-N and they can always be relied on to screw up.

Senate 2015 will not enter the political lexicon as Changa Manga once did, but it almost did — and for reasons that will surely perplex posterity. What the hell was that we just saw?

Set aside the raw numbers for a minute and focus on game management: the PML-N dropped the ball in Fata and Balochistan; the PTI carried it safely over the line in KP.

Fata was a disaster. And the PML-N was a disaster. Fata needn’t have been a disaster, but the PML-N? You can see what they were trying to do.

Fata is an electoral perversity: 12 — 11 at the moment — MNAs to elect four senators every three years. But the perversity is compounded by an anomaly: grab six MNA votes and you can get all four senators elected.

So, the inevitable happened: a Gang of Six emerged, shutting out the other five. Monopolies encouraged by the rules themselves are a bad idea in politics. It made sense to change it. If the change was about the system.

The PML-N’s middle-of-the-night presidential ordinance was not about the system. It was about the PML-N. Namely, the Fata MNAs in the PML-N camp were part of the losing five, not the winning Gang of Six.

A cynical legislative move to counter a cynical electoral bloc — it was always going to end in tears. But perhaps only the PML-N could take a bad idea and make it worse.

Senate 2015 will not enter the political lexicon as Changa Manga once did, but it almost did — and for reasons that will surely perplex posterity.

A middle-of-the-night presidential ordinance? Bypassing parliament to change the rules of parliament that determine how parliament is elected in order to change the composition of parliament?

With democrats like these….

Then there was Balochistan. And the contrast with KP. Somehow, the PML-N contrived to drop seats in Balochistan and pick up a seat in KP. It doesn’t make sense. It shouldn’t make sense.

The winning formulas in both Balochistan and KP came together at the last moment. That’s pretty normal. Both Balochistan and KP have divided assemblies. That’s pretty normal too.

The PML-N sent its A team to Balochistan, including surrogate PM, Fawad Hasan. That’s not very normal. The PML-N sent no one to KP, played second fiddle to the PTI and yet won more than expected. That just seems bizarre.

So, how did the PML-N lose where it was supposed to win and win where it was expected to lose?

The difference-maker, folk are suggesting, was Pervez Khattak. He made it happen for the PTI and, in a masterstroke, he did it by pulling one out of the bag for the PML-N too.

Khattak was a star, but mainly for handling Imran. (Though no mean feat that.) Beyond that, Khattak used the standard election playbook. His main success was execution, not innovation — and that’s all the numbers in KP required.

Senate elections are opaque. They don’t just seem more complicated than the straightforward first-past-post-system, they are.

There’s the single transferable vote (don’t bother) and the Droop quota (don’t ask) and different categories of senators with different number of votes required to win in each category (never mind). From all that complexity though some simplicity can be distilled.

In KP, to win one of the seven general seats up for election, roughly one-eighth of the total vote was needed. To win one of the two technocrat and two women’s seats, roughly one-third of the vote was needed. And to win the sole non-Muslim seat, half the total vote was needed.

That’s a pyramid of sorts. And pyramids offer opportunities.

In divided houses, as KP is with no single party in a majority, the standard approach is for the governing party to work with the next biggest party downwards — whether on treasury benches or in opposition — to get everyone’s candidates past the finish line.

Go back to the pyramid. You accommodate your allies at the bottom — general seats — share the seats in the middle — women/technocrat — and keep the top to yourself — non-Muslim.

That’s exactly what Khattak did in KP: the PTI won 3/7 general seats; 2/4 technocrat, women; and 1/1 minority.

There’s another part to it: a good way to keep your own MPAs in line is to win the support of other parties first. The PML-N could win nothing on its own, so it had an incentive to cooperate with the PTI. And once Khattak had the PML-N’s cooperation, the momentum of the breakaway PTI faction was broken.

Think about it. The PTI MPAs weren’t electing themselves to the Senate. They have to stick around in KP as MPAs until 2018. How crazy and greedy do you have to be to deliberately put yourself on the wrong side of a provincial and federal government for three years for the sake of electing someone else to another house?

Some can — because they have safe seats. Most can’t. And, in the end, most didn’t. Khattak prevailed because Khattak used a textbook approach.

Balochistan is slightly different. There are safe seats. There are monstrous egos and epic rivalries. There’s more tribalism than electoralism in many constituencies. The assembly has confounding combinations and permutations.

But the basic approach still applies. And the PML-N couldn’t get it right, failing right at the bottom of the pyramid by losing a general seat — the very one for which Nawaz himself had picked the PML-N candidate.

What makes that failure worse is that the centre has more clout in Balochistan than in any other province.

Remember who controls the centre? That would be the PML-N: specialising in failure even when screwing up seems improbable.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn March 8th , 2015

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