WITH Senate elections fast approaching, is the upper house of parliament being turned into a stable of sorts? Some part of an answer can be found in the ‘packages’ that are on offer.
First, there is the cash-only package. This is the most lucrative and can’t-say-no offer provided to honourable members of the provincial assembly to vote in full, all three preferences. But it’s a risky proposition, particularly for those with party affiliations — it carries the risk of exposing the identities of those who may turn their backs on their own parties.
Then there is the offer for voters’ second and third preferences. This is less attractive, but also less risky, than the first option for it allows a member to cast his/her first-preference vote for his/her own party candidate, while giving the second and third preference to a candidate of their own choice.
Then there is the cash-plus-ticket package. This includes cash plus an offer of a party ticket for those who are uncertain about winning from the platform of the party of which they are currently members, or those who aren’t confidant about getting a party ticket in the coming general election. This package has been designed for so-called party dissidents and those willing to switch sides.
Cash flows thick and fast in run-up to Senate elections
There is cash at hand, and plenty of it. And if some members of the provincial assembly are to be believed, the offer starts from Rs30 million to Rs50m a vote and is likely go further up as speculation gathers pace. So, how to keep their vote bank and members intact is a multi-million rupee (if not a multi-million dollar) question that is weighing heavy on every leader’s mind.
“I am worried,” acknowledged Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Pervez Khattak in a candid talk with Dawn. “I have to guard my members. It is unfortunate that parties have fielded moneyed people to purchase votes to become senators.”
Even Jamaat-i-Islami emir Sirajul Haq, whose party — in the words of his senior minister — has a “solid” seven members in the provincial assembly, including a female MPA, is crying foul ahead of the March 3 Senate elections.
The political parties are talking to each other to avert embarrassment of a magnitude never seen before. “Everybody is talking to everybody,” said Mr Khattak, sounding confident about clinching four seats in the general category and one each in the women’s and technical category.
While parties with smaller representation may have little to lose, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, with its total of 60 members — the largest group in the provincial assembly — that finds itself the most vulnerable. There are open dissidents and then there are those who don’t see much chance in the upcoming elections — some 11 of them, according to various estimates (though dissidents put the figure at much higher) — that may not vote for their own party.
Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao’s Qaumi Watan Party, with its total of 10 members in the provincial assembly, is another opposition party that may see some desertion amidst its ranks. The JUI-F and the PML-N may also get hit. The situation is alarming enough for the treasury as well as the opposition parties to go into a huddle to create new alliances and alignments.
The exceptionally large number of Senate candidates — 14 for the general seats, eight for women and five for technical seats — means that there will be a clamour for votes, thus pushing the stakes as well as the price tag high.
So who is the bull in the race? The ruling party as well as some opposition groups point towards the PPP. The PPP has seven seats in the provincial assembly and is therefore not in a position to get a berth in the Senate. Yet its contacts with MPAs of all hues have created a lot of ripples here. The names of some senior PPP figures in contact with all those interested in a deal or willing to switch sides are doing the rounds. One of them, who is widely credited with helping to topple the government of Balochistan chief minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, is believed to have been in contact with willing members in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The PPP, however, vehemently denies being involved in horse-trading. “This is propaganda,” its provincial president Humayun Khan told Dawn. “Some of the PTI lawmakers are disappointed with the performance of their own government and may therefore not vote for its candidates,” Mr Khan said.
Farhatullah Babar, who is amongst those retiring from the Senate, said that some time ago, the 104-member upper house of parliament converted itself into a special committee to make recommendations to the government. The special committee, which had representation from all political parties in the Senate, recommended proportionate representation to ward off horse-trading, he explained.
The veteran parliamentarian said the committee had also recommended that only those who had been registered voters in a province for a minimum of five years ought to be eligible for election to the Senate which, he added, was necessary to ensure that the upper house remained a true federal representative while discouraging those who registered themselves as voters just a week before filing their nomination papers.
Some parties have brought in wealthy candidates from other provinces and the federal capital to contest the Senate elections from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Mr Babar said that a recommendation was also made to ensure that all regions in a province got representation. The recommendations were sent a year ago to the federal government for its input, but “it is very unfortunate that the government did not show any interest in it”, he said.
In Mr Khattak’s view, what is happening is shameful. “This element of money is turning the Senate into an elite club,” he maintained, saying that the money factor has compelled some parties to look for wealthy candidates to pay not only their own members to prevent them from slipping away but also to buy additional votes to get into the Senate.
“Had there been proportionate representation in the Senate based on each party’s strength in the provincial assembly, there would never have been such a situation,” he said. “We would have had seasoned party loyalists in the upper house.”
Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2018