Untangling the mystery: All you need to know about Senate elections

The elections for Senate seats are a complicated affair. Here's's explainer on all that you need to know.
Updated 03 Mar, 2018 12:23pm

Senate elections are around the corner, and the PML-N — which seems set to become the largest party in the Upper House of Pakistan’s parliament — is already crying foul on horse-trading, especially in the backdrop of the sudden recent change in the Balochistan government.

But, despite the Senate elections holding immense importance in the national debate right now, little is known about how they are actually held or how the process works.

The Senate — the Upper House of Parliament — is a body of 104 lawmakers. Each serves a term of six years, barring resignation, disqualification, or other extraordinary circumstances. They are not all elected at the same time: rather, half are elected at one time, and the other half three years later.

In 2018, 52 senators (who were elected in 2012) are slated to retire. The other 52 were elected in 2015 and will retire in 2021.

Of the 52 Senate seats being vacated for election on March 3, 46 will be filled by the four provincial assemblies, 2 by the National Assembly, and 4 by lawmakers representing Fata.

Each provincial assembly will elect 7 senators on General seats, 2 on Technocrat seats and 2 on Women seats, for a total of 11 seats. Two provinces (Sindh and Punjab) will additionally also choose a Minority member each.

Additionally, Fata MNAs will elect four senators, all on General seats, while the National Assembly will elect two members from Islamabad (one to a General seat and one to either a Woman or Technocrat/Ulema seat).

The candidates and the process

There are a total of 135 candidates contesting the 2018 Senate elections from the federal capital, Fata and the four provinces.

Among the candidates, 20 are from the PPP, 14 from the MQM, 13 from PTI and four from Pak Sarzameen Party. In addition to this, 65 candidates will be contesting as 'independents', which includes the 23 candidates nominated by PML-N who cannot contest polls on their party ticket anymore.

Twenty candidates are contesting the polls from Punjab. Of these, 10 will contest for General seats, three for Women's seats, five for Technocrats' seats, and two for a seat reserved for minorities.

A total of 33 candidates will contest the Senate polls from Sindh, of which 18 will contest for General seats, six each for seats reserved for Technocrats and Women, and three for a seat reserved for minorities.

From Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 27 candidates will contest the polls, of which 14 will contest for General seats, while five and eight candidates will contest the seats reserved for Technocrats and Women, respectively. The KP seat for minorities is currently filled.

Twenty-five candidates are contesting the polls from Balochistan, of which 15 will contest for General seats, six for Women seats, and four will contest for seats reserved for Technocrats. The Balochistan seat for minorities is currently filled.

How are the Senate elections held?

The Senate elections are not direct elections, so you won’t be participating in the voting process (unless you’re an MPA or MNA).

Also unlike the General election, the voting system used in the Senate election is not the ‘first past the post’ system. (First past the post system: whoever gets the highest number of votes is the winner.)

Instead, the ‘single transferable vote’ system of proportional representation is used.

What is the single transferable vote?

Under the single transferable vote system, voters cast a single ballot which mentions all the candidates they would like to see elected in order of their personal priority or preference (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on).

Sample ballot paper.
Sample ballot paper.

Each of these vote has a value. A quota calculated by the Election Commission of Pakistan determines how many votes each candidate needs to be considered elected.

The votes received by each candidate are tallied in each count. When a candidate receives enough votes to cross the quota, the extra value of his or her votes is transferred down to lower priority candidates (in the order mentioned by the voters).

The candidates who receive the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes are transferred to other candidates in the order of preference mentioned by their voters.

The process of transferring votes from successful and eliminated candidates continues until all vacant seats are filled.

The quota needed to be elected as a senator varies depending on which assembly and which seat the candidate is contesting for.

For example, for a candidate from Balochistan fighting for the General seat, the required number of votes to win a General seat is 9.

A senate hopeful from Punjab, on the other hand, will need 46 votes from the Punjab Assembly to win a General seat. This difference in the required number of votes is due to the different size of the two assemblies.

The chart below shows how many votes are needed from each assembly to be successfully elected to a Senate General seat, assuming all lawmakers turn up to vote.

What will the new Senate look like

Proportional representation

As you can see by now, how many seats a political party holds in an assembly (and hence how many votes it controls) will determine how many senators it can elect.

Punjab (46 votes* elect a senator)

There are 371 total seats in Punjab Assembly; however, only 367 are currently occupied. Of these, 309 are occupied by members of the PML-N, 30 by PTI members, eight each by PPP and PML-Q members, five by independent lawmakers, three by members of PML-Zia, and one each by a member of Pakistan National Muslim League, Jamaat-i-Islami, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and the Bahawalpur National Party.

Sindh (21 votes* elect a senator)

The total seats in Sindh are 168, but there are currently only 167 lawmakers occupying them. Currently, 95 of them are members of the PPP, 50 are members of MQM, nine are lawmakers representing PML-F, nine PML-N, four PTI, one National Peoples Party and one is an independent lawmaker.

KP (16 votes* elect a senator)

The total seats in the KP Assembly are 124, but there are 123 lawmakers currently in office. Sixty one are members of the PTI, 16 are members of PML-N, 16 of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, 10 of Qaumi Watan Party, seven of Jamaat-i-Islami, six of PPP, five of the Awami National party and two are independent members.

Balochistan (9 votes* elect a senator)

The total number of seats and lawmakers in the Balochistan Assembly is 65. Of these, 21 are PML-N members, 14 PkMAP members, five PML-Q, eight JUI-F, 11 National Party, two from the BNP, a lawmaker each from the MWM, the ANP and the BNP-A, and one independent member.

Federal (114 votes* elect a senator)

At present, the National Assembly has 342 seats for lawmakers from across the country. It currently comprises 340 members.

The treasury benches are occupied by 221 members: the PML-N enjoys a majority with 187 members, while its allied JUI-F contributes another 14. The PML-F adds another five, PkMAP three, National People’s Party two, and PML-Zia and the National Party have one lawmaker each on the benches.

There are 119 lawmakers on the opposition benches, of which 47 belong to the PPP, 33 to PTI, 24 to the MQM, four each to the Jamaat-i-Islami and PML-Q, two to the ANP, and one each to APML and QWP. Three independent lawmakers are also part of the opposition.

*Number of votes required to be elected to a General seat.

Header photo design by Nabeel Ahmed.

A deeper look at the election process

Let’s say we’re electing senators for General seats from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly. There are 7 seats to be filled.

You have the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa MPAs as your pool of voters (the electoral college), and you have a list of candidates they will be voting for.

Details on the procedure have been taken from various ECP documents. Candidate names, party affiliations and scenarios are purely fictitious.

Step 1

The first thing the Election Commission of Pakistan will do is it will assign a value of 100 ‘points’ to each vote.

Assuming they all turn up to vote, this means that KP’s 123 lawmakers will have [123*100 =] 12,300 points to allocate in total.

Next, the ECP will determine how many points a candidate will need to win a Senate seat.

This is called the Quota.

The following formula will be used:


[(Points available to be distributed)/(Number of seats + 1)] +1

According to this formula, if all sitting lawmakers of the KP Assembly vote on election day, the quota to win each of the 7 General seats will be as follows:

(12,300)/(7+1)]+1 = 1,538

The formula ensures that there will be only 7 winners, as only 7 candidates can possibly secure a minimum of 1,538 points without exhausting the total points available.

Step 2

The next thing that needs to be understood is how the points will be allocated.

Each voter is given the option of voting for multiple candidates, but they have to mention an order of preference for their choices.

On the first count, each candidate mentioned as the ‘first preference’ will be given the full 100 points of that vote’s value.

In order for a candidate to be elected on a General seat from KP on the first count, a candidate will need at least 16 votes (this will give the candidate 1,600 points in total, 62 more than the quota).

Let’s assume the following are the first preference votes received by each candidate in our model:

PTI’s Zaman, Mohammad and Iqbal have, under the formula, secured more points than the required quota. They shall, therefore, be declared winners on the first count.

Three of the 7 General seats are now filled. Four are still left.

Step 3

To fill the remaining seats, another count needs to be held. The returning officer will look again at the votes that have been cast to take into account all the ‘second preference’ votes.

This is where it gets complicated.

Hassan Iqbal has received the highest number of votes (17 votes=>1,700 points) and has ‘surplus’ points (162 above the 1,538 point quota).

These surplus points will now be transferred to the second preference candidates on the votes he has received.

The returning officers will divide the surplus points between all the votes Iqbal received, ignoring any fractions. This means his 162 surplus points will be split between the 17 votes he received.

If any of the votes he received did not indicate a second preference, the surplus will be divided between the remaining votes.

Let's assume one voter did not.

Therefore: 162 (surplus points) / 16 (number of votes the surplus points can be transferred to) = 10 points to be transferred to the second preferences mentioned on each vote that Iqbal received.

Now, let’s assume that the voters whose first preference was Iqbal mentioned the following candidates as their second preferences.

Since Shabbir Mohammad and Rafay Zaman have already been elected, the Returning Officer will look at the third preferences on the ballots in their favour, which, let’s assume was Mohammad Lateef (on the 2 votes that went to Mohammad as well as on the 1 vote that went to Zaman).

This translates to 13 votes transferred to Lateef (10 second preference votes and 3 third preference votes). Each of these 13 votes will transfer 10 points to his tally, meaning a total of 130 points have been transferred to Lateef.

Yosufzai will be transferred 30 points (3*10) for the three second preference votes he received. The points table now stands at:

The surplus for the other candidates who won in the first count — Zaman and Mohammad — would be dealt with in a similar fashion.

Let’s fast forward a bit: assuming 15 of those who voted for Zaman and Mohammad voted for Lateef as second preference, 14 for Qadir, and 3 for JUI-S’s Azhar, the table will now look as follows:

Since there are no more surpluses to be dealt with, we move on to the next step: elimination of candidates with the lowest votes.

Step 4: Elimination of candidates

In our example, PML-N’s Sohail Abid and Naeem Ahmed, as well as PPP’s Kaleemullah, have received the fewest votes.

The simplest way for an RO to eliminate a candidate is by drawing lots. Let’s assume Naeem Ahmed is eliminated through this method.

Step 5: Transfer the points of the eliminated candidate

The points received by the eliminated candidate will now be transferred to others.

In our case, Ahmed received 100 points from the single vote he received.

Let’s assume the voter who voted for Ahmed as his/her first preference marked Ali as their second preference.

Ahmed’s points will then be transferred to Ali.

The points table will now appear as:

But no new person has managed to cross the 1,538 points quota, which means the elimination will continue. The next to go will be Sohail Abid and Kaleemullah, followed by Junaid Hafeez and PTI’s Qadir.

Let’s assume the second preference for those who voted for Hafeez was Abdullah Khan, while Sohail Abid’s points will go to Ali. Kaleemullah’s points are assumed to go to Raja.

While the process of transferring Abid, Kaleemullah and Hafeez’s points is simple, Qadir’s is slightly more complicated because he received different amounts of points from first and second preference votes.

The two first preference votes he received shall be transferred at their original value of 100 each. The 3 second preference votes will be transferred at the value of 10 points each — which is the value they were transferred at to him — and the 14 third preference votes at the value of 3 points each.

Let’s assume both first preference votes for Qadir go to Lateef, along with 2 votes valued at 10.

[2 * 100 + 2 * 10 = 220 points transferred]

The remaining 14 votes, valued at 3 each, go to Mujeeb Azhar (14*3 = 52 points transferred).

Since this still does not take any candidate across the quota line, let’s assume Majeed Hussain is also eliminated and his 300 quota points now go to Ali.

The table will look like this:

Since Ali achieves the quota, he shall now join the three PTI men as a elected senator from the KP assembly.

His surplus will now need to be transferred. However, it won’t be transferred back to all the votes he has received up till this point, but only to the votes that took him over the finishing line (the votes from the most recent count).

Since it was Majeed Hussain’s 3 votes that got him beyond the line, Ali’s transferable surplus shall be calculated as: (surplus/number of votes in most recent count)=> 62/3 = 20 (fractions disregarded)

If all three of these votes had mentioned their next preference as JUI-F’s Asad Afridi, his points tally would rise to 1,260.

With none of the candidates still having reached the quota, another round of elimination would follow, and Mohammad Shoaib would have to give way.

We assume all of his voters would be transferred to Afridi as the second preference, making the points graph look like:

Afridi will also be elected and his surplus of 122 points will require a transfer, with each vote carrying a value of 30 [(surplus/number of votes received in most recent count)=> 122/4].

We assume all of these points will go to the JI candidate Abdullah Khan.

But this would still not create any surplus, and another round of elimination would follow.

The victim this time would be ANP’s Shahid Kareem, whose votes are assumed to have been transferred to Lateef.

Lateef is now elected, leaving only one other seat to be filled.

The rule for the last seat to be filled in is simple: the candidate with the highest points is declared the winner. In our example, QWP’s Raza would be the last elected candidate, since he had the highest number of votes among all remaining candidates.

In case of a tie, lots would have to be drawn.

The same voting system will be followed for all the other seats, with the quota (required number of votes) changing to reflect the number of seats waiting to be filled.


The biggest criticism that the Senate election procedure faces comes because of the room for horse-trading — buying votes — that it leaves. This essentially stems from two of its key features: indirect elections and secret ballot.

Secret balloting means no one knows who the voter (lawmaker) marked as his/her preference. This allows for voters to vote for candidates other than their own party's candidates.

But what really irks critics — and now increasingly politicians — is the indirect elections part. Simply put, by reducing the pool of voters from millions to hundreds, indirect elections also reduce the number of people you need to 'buy' to get elected.

It is also why so many rich independents try their hand at elections.

The issue has especially gained traction this time around owing to three main factors — the overthrowing of the Zehri government in Balochistan, PML-N candidates being forced to run as independents, and the cracks within the MQM.

This means that a number of MPAs from Balochistan elected on PML-N tickets, those secretly upset in Punjab, and those in Sindh who have joined the PSP or are stuck in the middle of the Bahadurabad-PIB drama, are all potentially susceptible to horse-trading: ie, selling their votes to the highest bidder.

This aspect has invited criticism from a spectrum of notables with political clout, such as PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Imran Khan, and former ECP officials and Senators.

Critics, including Abbasi and Khan, have suggested direct elections could curb the practice of horse-trading.