Case for direct Senate elections

13 Mar 2018


IT was not for the first time that accusations of vote buying dominated the discourse on elections to the Senate. There is, however, no denying that these are becoming louder with each election. This indicates that the stakes of our political actors in these elections have risen over time. But it has also put the electoral system for our upper house to test and exposed its flaws.

In most democracies with a bicameral parliamentary system, the upper houses are filled through indirect elections, if not by selection, and face similar challenges.

In older democracies, upper houses were sustained to maintain a check over the other houses directly elected by the populace. In these countries, the history of development of democracy is actually that of a slow, gradual shift of power from the appointed upper to the elected lower houses.

The rules for entry to the upper houses, however, have experienced a far slower pace of change. The hereditary membership of Britain’s House of Lords prevailed till as late as 1991 when Labour government reforms reduced the members to a minority.

Collectively, Pakistan’s senators may not represent the ethno-linguistic diversity of their provinces.

The new system changed the membership criteria from a birthright to an ‘earned’ privilege but the method of appointment remained short on democratic credentials which brought its own set of problems. Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned by police in 2006 over allegations of giving membership of the House of Lords to four businessmen who had loaned £14 million to his Labour party before the 2005 general elections.

The overlordship of elected systems by traditional elites was not favoured by many new democracies, especially the ones under leftist influence. Bangladesh opted for a unicameral system in 1972 and Sri Lanka abolished its Senate around the same time.

Nepal that abolished its monarchy in 2008, following years of an armed struggle by Maoists, however, has not followed suit. The process of constitution-making in the ethnically diverse country could not afford to ignore questions regarding federalism. The first Nepalese constitution has thus instituted a bicameral legislature with the upper house giving equal representation to all provinces.

Upper houses in federal democracies have come to serve the crucial purpose of guarding against majoritarian rule by the dominant ethnic and linguistic groups. Despite a recent reduction of seven seats, Punjab has more members in the National Assembly than the rest of Pakistan put together. It is the Senate that counterbalances its demographic weight denying it majority status in the joint parliament.

Even though the new federal democracies have redefined the role for their upper houses, they have somehow shied away from introducing direct elections to them; using templates from older democracies, they have introduced methods that are only marginally better than the direct appointment of members. India’s Rajya Sabha is also the house of federation and follows a system of elections similar to that in Pakistan. The country has attempted to check the practice of vote buying by partially ending the secrecy of the ballot. Rule 39AA of the elections to the Rajya Sabha requires the electors to show their marked ballots to their party’s polling agent.

Even if we ignore the debate on the political freedom of elected members that this rule restricts, it has had a limited impact on corruption. The rule does not obviously apply to independents, or members of the smaller parties that lack numbers to propel their own candidate consider themselves free to sell their vote to the highest bidder.

The Election Commission of India cancelled the Rajya Sabha election on two seats in Jharkhand state in 2012 after it confiscated crores of rupees in cash from a candidate’s vehicle on election day. On the other hand, as party positions were secure and clear on the other 55 (of 58 vacant) seats in different states in the same elections, candidates on all of them returned unopposed; meaning that no polling was required.

This shows that ending the secrecy of the ballot actually reduces this electoral system to the party list system in which the party position in one house is mirrored in the other. This is similar to what we currently practice to fill the seats reserved for women and minorities in the national and the provincial assemblies. This consolidates the power of nominating authorities’ within political parties to the level that the polls become a farce as there’s no way their nominees could lose.

The newest federal democracy in South Asia, Nepal, has introduced the proportional representation system in its lower house but it too did not take any bold step in elections to its upper house and has opted for indirect elections. It, however, has expanded the electoral college beyond provincial assemblies to include representatives of local bodies, assigning them a relatively lower weightage.

It will be interesting to see whether the electoral college’s expansion will have a sobering impact on indirect elections in Nepal. But, going by our own experience of expanded indirect elections in the 1960s (basic democracy), there is little chance.

The US Senate in the US also gives equal representation to all its states. It too used to be filled through indirect elections as prescribed in the original constitution and, not surprisingly, faced similar challenges. After a long debate and a protracted process, the country moved to direct elections to the Senate under the 17th Amendment; and that’s been working there since 1913.

This may be the way forward for all democracies in which upper houses stand to represent the federation aspect of their governance system.

A direct election means the senators will come from geographical constituencies and this can accrue additional benefits. The senators in Pakistan represent their respective provinces but collectively they may not be representative of ethnic and linguistic diversity within their respective provinces. Punjab has a north-south divide, KP has non-Pushto areas, Balochistan is shared by Baloch and Pakhtuns and Sindh by Mohajirs and Sindhis.

A system of direct election to the Senate through adult franchise from geographical constituencies is likely to make the federation more thorough besides taking care of the rampant practice of vote buying. The solutions to the problems of democracy can only be found in more democracy.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018