THE first order of business in the new Senate may prove to be the most controversial decision of its term.

The Senate has a new chairman: Sadiq Sanjrani, an independent member of the upper house who was elected to the Senate by a rebel faction of the PML-N in Balochistan.

Mr Sanjrani’s meteoric rise to the top of the country’s constitutional leadership is being presented as a feel-good story by his public, political backers. The argument is that a first chairman of the Senate from Balochistan is a victory for democracy.

To put it mildly, that remains to be seen.

What is clear, however, is that the Senate election has opened the door to fierce and otherwise implausible political alliance-building, encouraged by anti-democratic forces in the shadows.

From the coup inside the Balochistan assembly against the PML-N to yesterday’s strange election results in the Senate, the auguries are not good for the democratic project in the country.

Certainly, a stinging loss for the PML-N in the Senate was made easier by the PML-N leadership’s general disdain for parliament and Nawaz Sharif’s obsession with turning electoral politics into a referendum on himself.

Mr Sharif’s attendance in parliament was dismal, while Senate sessions were routinely derailed by the absence of government ministers from the upper house.

Only in recent weeks, with the Senate chairmanship up for grabs, did the PML-N leadership suddenly evince deep interest in the Senate. That interest was always likely to greatly decrease following the now-concluded Senate elections.

Yet, where the PML-N has failed, the other major political parties have not boosted democracy in the country either. In electing Mr Sanjrani, the PTI and PPP are entitled to celebrate a defeat inflicted on a major political rival, the PML-N. But yesterday’s events are hardly a victory for either of the leading opposition parties. After all, it is not a PPP or PTI senator who is the new chairman.

More worryingly, with all eyes now turning towards a general election, the machinations in the Senate may be a prelude to a season of intense political wheeling and dealing, arm-twisting and horse-trading.

Anti-democratic forces may seek to dismantle the PML-N electoral machine and prise away winning candidates if Nawaz Sharif continues to fight attempts to remove him from frontline politics.

Other major political parties, sensing an opportunity as they did in the Senate elections, may form otherwise implausible alliances to increase their chances of success in a crowded field. An election in such circumstances may appear to be intensely competitive, but it would be fundamentally unfair and undemocratic.

The net result would be a strengthening of anti-democratic forces in the country, with the complicity and collusion of political mainstream. In the last parliament it was the PPP that suffered, in this parliament it is the PML-N; at this rate, will the next parliament not bring further democratic suffering?

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018

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