RED ZONE FILES: Tickets to trouble

Published February 18, 2021
Secret ballots tend to favour rich and powerful people. — AFP/File
Secret ballots tend to favour rich and powerful people. — AFP/File

THINGS are settling down in a restless way. The past week has left Islamabad exhausted. The bruising fight over Senate tickets continues to take a toll on PTI and PML-N even as the fate of the secret ballot hangs in the hands of the judges of the Supreme Court. There is fren­­zy unfolding in slow motion. Every­thing is hurtling towards the showdown in the Senate while all things are suspended in the air till the court decides how the elections will be held. In the middle of all this, the grand finale of PTI versus PDM battle royale simmers on the sidelines waiting for its turn to come on March 26 once the brawl in the Senate runs its course.

But punches have been thrown even before the brawl starts. PTI has been the hardest hit with internal strife. The first fault line in the party in the race for the senate ticket — between the high-profile aspirants and the lesser known party loyalists — was settled firmly by Prime Minister Imran Khan before it could get real ugly. As reported in this column last week, the prime minister had decided that those people who were already working as advisers or special assistants would not get the ticket. This automatically removed people like Babar Awan, Barrister Shahzad Akbar and Shahbaz Gill from the list. However, the second fault line — between a long line of loyalists and workers — ruptured like a weak artery once the tickets were announced.

Grievances are a natural outcome of such selection. The ruling party had decided that instead of aspirants applying formally for tickets and depositing application fee, etc, a party parliamentary board would make the final decision. This board, chaired by the prime minister himself, included senior party members from all provinces. The board deliberated upon the names without specifying what criteria it was using to select the person. When the names were announced, an outcry erupted in Balochistan and Sindh (and a slightly mu­ted one in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).

At the end, many changes were made and tickets redistributed. This was an unstated admission that PTI’s parliamentary board had made wrong choices and bad decisions. At the very least, the issue of rewarding tickets was mismanaged; at the most it will leave some sections of the party simmering with discontent.

One example of this discontent has been over the awarding of a Senate ticket to federal minister Faisal Vawda. The Election Commission of Pakistan is hearing a case against him for not disclosing that he was a dual national on the day he submitted his papers for contesting the 2018 elections. Vawda has a temperamental personality which often does not win him friends. In one cabinet meeting he got into a heated argument with another minister and had to be physically taken out of the room before things could get ugly. But he is very close to the prime minister. When Vawda had got into trouble after putting a military boot on the table in a live talk show, government sources say the prime minister stood by him. He survived.

But just about. The ECP case looks ominous. The only way for him to survive again is to get into the Senate. He has been obliged. Important voices within the cabinet were not enthralled by the decision to grant him a ticket, but the prime minister has stood by him — again.

But will he stand by his ally who heads the house where Vawda is headed? Even if the Supreme Court allows for an open ballot in the Senate elections, the process for electing the chairman of the upper house of parliament will be conducted through a secret ballot. Trouble is brewing. There is pressure within PTI that the chairman should now be from their party since it will be the single largest party in the Senate. Some within the party are arguing that the present chairman Sadiq Sanjrani has had a three-year stint — and also survived a no-confidence motion — and his party BAP should now let PTI have the chair. There are at least four aspirants for chairmanship of the Senate from PTI. Three of them are already members of the house while the fourth one is in the process of being elected. There was a fifth aspirant — who was actively lobbying for it — but people found out. He did not even get the ticket. Lesson: don’t show your cards too early.

And then there’s Yousuf Raza Gilani of PPP. If he were to somehow win from Islamabad — this would require at least ten people from the treasury benches in the National Assembly to vote for him — he would almost certainly be PDM’s candidate for the chairmanship of the Senate. Opposition people are relishing this. One senior leader, when asked what could happen if Gilani was fielded as the chairman, chuckled and said the secret ballot would help Gilani because PTI and BAP are already grumbling against each other.

In fact, the opposition says it may pick up one or two extra seats from KP because PDM is coordinating their votes. Given the complex system of voting, the opposition feels a carefully planned, coordinated and calculated casting of votes by their members in KP could squeeze out a couple of seats (one leader even said in the best case scenario they could get a women’s seat too). In their assessment, if they get two extra, they could — possibly — reach the magical figure of 51 in the house of 100, thereby retaining control of the Senate.

It’s a long shot. And the government has powerful backers. Secret ballots tend to favour rich and powerful people. The government has completed half its term this month, and the Senate elections are being seen as the dividing point between the first half and the second half of PTI’s tenure. Officials in the Red Zone are expecting some changes after the Senate elections, and after the PDM’s March 26 long march. A cabinet reshuffle is long overdue and some of the newly elected senators may find their way into the cabinet. It is now a race towards 2023 and the politics that will define who plays which cards in order to have a real shot at victory in the next elections. PDM leaders say their politics is also evolving in light of the situation and their leaders have learnt from the mistakes of the last four months.

Things are settling down in a restless way.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2021

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