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 04 Mar, 2021 12:49am

Senate elections are upon us, and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is set to become the single largest party in the upper house of Pakistan’s parliament after weeks of uncertainty over which mode will be adopted to elect lawmakers during the March 3 polls.

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.

As many as 52 senators — who were elected in 2015 — are set to retire on March 11 after completing their six-year tenure. However, this time there will be no polling for the four seats of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) after their merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Therefore, the 2021 elections will see 48 new senators join the upper house — 12 each from KP and Balochistan, 11 each from Punjab and Sindh and two from Islamabad.

However, there will be no polling for the 11 seats from Punjab as all the candidates for three categories — seven general and two seats each reserved for women and technocrats — were elected unopposed last week after the disqualification or withdrawal of papers by other contestants.

This means polling will be held to elect the remaining 37 senators from KP, Balochistan, Sindh and Islamabad. The three provincial assemblies will elect seven members on general seats, two on women seats and two on technocrat seats. Besides, the election on one minority seat each in KP and Balochistan will also be conducted. The National Assembly will elect two members from Islamabad (one to a general seat and one to a woman seat).

The candidates and the process

There are a total of 78 candidates contesting the 2021 Senate elections from the federal capital and the three provinces.

The candidates include 14 from the PTI, 13 from the PPP, 2 from the PML-N, 2 from MQM-P, 11 from BAP and 1 from TLP. In addition to this, three candidates will be contesting as independents.

A total of 17 candidates will contest the Senate polls from Sindh, of whom 10 will contest for general seats, four for seats reserved for technocrats and three for women seats. The Sindh seat for minorities is currently filled.

From KP, 25 candidates will contest the polls, of whom 11 will contest for general seats, while five each will contest the seats reserved for technocrats and women. Four will vie for the seat reserved for the minorities.

Thirty-two candidates are contesting the polls from Balochistan, of whom 16 will contest for general seats, eight for women seats, four for seats reserved for technocrats, and four for the minority seat from the province.

In Punjab, five seats each have gone unopposed to the PTI and opposition PML-N, while one has been grabbed by the PML-Q, an ally of the PTI.

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 votes 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 47 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 (47 votes* elect a senator)

There are 371 total seats in Punjab Assembly; however, only 368 are currently occupied. Of these, 181 are occupied by members of the PTI, 165 by PML-N members, 10 by PML-Q members, 7 by PPP members, 4 by independent lawmakers, and one by a member of the Pakistan Rah-e-Haq Party.

Sindh (22 votes* elect a senator)

The total seats in Sindh are 168. Currently, 99 of them are members of the PPP, 21 are members of MQM-P, 30 PTI, 14 Grand Democratic Alliance, three TLP and one MMA.

KP (19 votes* elect a senator)

The total seats in the KP Assembly after the merger of Fata are 145. Ninety-four are members of the PTI, 14 are members of MMA, 12 of the ANP, 7 of the PML-N, 5 of the PPP, 4 of BAP, 3 of JUI-F, one each of the PML-Q and Jamaat-i-Islami, and 4 are independent members.

Balochistan (9 votes* elect a senator)

The total number of seats in the Balochistan Assembly is 65 but currently 64 seats are occupied. Of these, 24 are BAP members, 10 BNP, 10 MMA, 7 PTI, 4 from the ANP, 3 BNP-A, 2 Hazara Democratic Party, one each from the PML-N, PkMAP and Jamhuri Watan Party, and one independent member.

Federal (171 votes* elect a senator)

At present, the National Assembly has 342 seats for lawmakers from across the country. It currently comprises 341 members. The ruling PTI holds 157 seats, PML-N 83, PPP 55, 15 MMA, MQM-P 7, BAP 5, PML-Q 4, BNP 4, GDA 3, AML 1, ANP 1, JWP 1, and four are independent members.

*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.

Abdul Qadir 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 had especially gained traction ahead of the 2018 Senate elections 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 meant that a number of MPAs from Balochistan elected on PML-N tickets, those secretly upset in Punjab, and those in Sindh who had joined the PSP or were stuck in the middle of the Bahadurabad-PIB drama, were all potentially susceptible to horse-trading: ie, selling their votes to the highest bidder.

This aspect had invited criticism from a spectrum of notables with political clout, such as then-prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Imran Khan, and former ECP officials and Senators.

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

However, the issue of horse-trading gained unprecedented attention this time around as now-Prime Minister Imran Khan's government pulled out all the stops to have the 2021 Senate elections conducted through open ballot.

It filed a presidential reference in the Supreme Court seeking an open ballot for the Senate polls to check horse-trading through selling and buying of votes.

But before the court decided the reference, the government, anticipating a favourable decision from the SC and after failing to get a constitution amendment bill for the purpose passed by the National Assembly, issued an ordinance amending the Elections Act, 2017, for the use of “open and identifiable ballots”. The opposition parties have rejected the move and even challenged the ordinance in court.

Two days before the March 3 elections, the Supreme Court put an end to the debate by ruling that polls for the upper house of parliament will be held through secret ballot, according to Article 226 of the Constitution.