WHAT NEXT FOR THE OPPOSITION?

Published March 21, 2021
Maulana Fazlur Rehman leaves without taking questions after the PDM’s meeting on March 16 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
Maulana Fazlur Rehman leaves without taking questions after the PDM’s meeting on March 16 | Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

Things sure looked very different a mere week ago. With the opposition appearing confident that they would emerge victorious in the elections for the Senate chairman and deputy chairman, and Imran Khan’s popularity apparently dipping, it seemed there was no stopping the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Instead, in a matter of days, the PDM has lost momentum. Its anti-government ‘long march’, scheduled to begin on March 26, has been postponed. And it is clear that different party leaders within the opposition alliance are unable to see eye to eye on the matter of en masse resignations from the assemblies.

Maybe this was always bound to happen. But the cracks began to really show after the Senate elections ended with the re-election of Sadiq Sanjrani, widely regarded a man of the military establishment and backed by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and its allies, as chairman of the Upper House of the Legislature in a hotly contested battle on March 12.

The PDM may be down, but it would be foolish to consider it out for the count. The war for power continues to be fought between PTI and its adversaries, still largely united under the banner of PDM on a rough field, supposedly laid and managed by the country’s powerful military establishment.

There are few slow news days in Pakistan, but with hotly contested senate elections, a hurried vote of confidence, ‘spy’ cameras and, finally, a postponed anti-government long march, the first half of March has been unusually busy. What does it all mean for the future of the opposition, the government and the Senate? Nasir Jamal tries to make sense of it all

ALL THE PTI’S ADVERSARIES

Although Imran Khan’s PTI has increased its tally in the Senate to 25 to become the largest party in the upper house after this year’s election, the defeat of his finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh from Islamabad at the hands of Yousuf Raza Gilani, former prime minister and joint candidate of the combined opposition, shocked the ruling party and many others.

Even though the loss of its Islamabad seat would not affect the PTI-led alliance’s numerical majority in the lower house — which acts as the electoral college for Islamabad’s Senate seats — it underscored the strong threat the opposition PDM could pose to the government if and when it decided to bring a no-confidence motion against the prime minister.

With the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) actively selling the narrative about the ‘neutrality’ of the establishment in the run-up to the March 3 vote, the loss was quickly interpreted by many political commentators as the proverbial last nail in the coffin of the PTI government. They were also encouraged to pursue the PPP’s narrative and predict the imminent fall of Imran Khan by a statement, from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) vice president Maryam Nawaz Sharif, that the opposition parties may not, after all, need to organise their planned ‘long march’ on the capital to dislodge the prime minister and pave the way for new elections.

On the basis of its numerical majority in the Upper House, the combined opposition was also confident of getting its men elected as chairman and deputy chairman of the Senate.

Prime Minister Imran Khan casting his vote in the Senate chairman election | White Star
Prime Minister Imran Khan casting his vote in the Senate chairman election | White Star

However, Imran Khan was quick to dig in and move into action to dispel the growing public perception of him having lost the support of his party caused by Gilani’s victory, which was made possible by the defection of around 16-odd PTI members of the National Assembly. He appeared on television to blame corruption enabled by the secret balloting for his party’s loss of the Islamabad seat and announced he would seek a vote of confidence from the Assembly, including from those who he had accused of ditching his finance minister and siding with the opposition’s candidate for money.

Then, he went ahead with a strongly worded angry outburst against the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for not heeding his suggestion to hold the Senate vote through an open ballot for the sake of transparency and to discouraging members of the Assembly from switching sides for money. The ECP also responded as strongly, noting that the Senate elections were conducted according to the provisions of the Constitution, advising the premier to stop mudslinging.

The ‘Kaptaan’ also repeated his refrain to vigorously pursue corruption cases against the PDM leaders, even if he had to sit on the opposition benches. As if that were not enough to smoothen the worry lines on the foreheads of his supporters, his unscheduled meeting with army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa and his spy chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed Chishti at his office the next morning helped give the much-needed perceptual boost to his fragile government.

Followed by a vote of confidence in him, the surprise re-election of Sanjrani as chairman of the Senate, where the combined opposition has 51 votes in hand against 47 votes held by the ruling party and its allies, further solidified the hold of Imran Khan on power, removing all doubts, if any, of the establishment distancing itself from him.

The establishment may not have been able to stop disgruntled PTI members from cross-party voting or wasting their ballots to keep Shaikh out of the upper house. But, according to some critics, it did manage the election of its man as Senate chairman, by getting the presiding officer, Senator Syed Muzaffar Hussain Shah, to reject seven opposition votes.

The PDM parties may have challenged the presiding officer’s controversial decision to reject the Gilani votes on insubstantial technical grounds. But it no longer matters because Imran Khan stays in power with the army apparently backing him — at least for now.

POWER PLAY

Elections to the Senate, the permanent house of the country’s bicameral parliament, happen every three years, when half of its members are elected in an indirect vote, with the respective provincial assemblies electing the senators for the provinces and the National Assembly for Islamabad for a six-year term. Normally, the results are consistent with the party positions in the assemblies.

The use of money by the wealthy candidates — competing independently or on any party’s tickets — because of the limited electorate has come to be largely regarded as part and parcel of the contest. There have also been reports in the past of senators crossing party lines for money or favour and switching sides on the instructions of the establishment when governments change.

Nonetheless, the 2018 election saw a new dimension added to the play: in order to deprive the then ruling PML-N, a revolt was engineered in Balochistan and a new party, the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), was created overnight, allegedly at the behest of the military establishment. The PML-N and its nationalist allies in the provincial assembly suddenly lost their majority and their coalition was replaced by BAP.

The PPP, which was feeling let down by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for time and again leaving it in the lurch, joined forces with BAP to defeat the PML-N. Sanjrani, a wealthy political nobody, was elected as chairman of the upper house, to the chagrin of PML-N and Nawaz Sharif, who had months earlier been removed from office by the Supreme Court on a corruption charge. In return, PPP got its man, Saleem Mandviwala, as deputy chairman. Sanjrani narrowly escaped a no-confidence move by PML-N and some other parties in April 2019, when many opposition members also voted for him against their party decision. The PML-N blamed PPP for playing both sides to thwart the motion at that time.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari hand in hand with newly elected Senator Yousuf Raza Gilani | Tanveer Shahzad /White Star
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari hand in hand with newly elected Senator Yousuf Raza Gilani | Tanveer Shahzad /White Star

Nevertheless, this year’s Senate elections are considered by some political analysts as a watershed in the 47-year history of the upper house and will be remembered for a number of things. The main take-away from this election is the conversion of the majority in the upper house into a minority through the election of its chairman. It has never happened before. Even in 2018, the powers-that-be first manipulated the election of new senators by engineering a revolt in Balochistan, before installing their man in the leadership position.

The second major take-away is the fact that two persons — Sanjrani and his deputy Mirza Mohammad Afridi — who have no political history, have now been given the command to steer the upper house, only because they are “filthy rich” and supporters of the military establishment. “To get them elected as chairman and deputy chairman, the establishment has gone to new lengths and undermined the entire institution. This is sad,” says a political analyst, who works for a Lahore-based non-profit and requested anonymity.

According to this analyst, the way the opposition’s votes for the election of Senate chairman were rejected unabashedly to secure the desired results, shows the extent to which the establishment could go to manipulate the parliament, even if the presiding officer’s decision has no legal or political ground to stand on.

Technical knockouts are part and parcel of the game but there has to be a logical explanation for them. The analyst adds that the votes were rejected because some opposition members chose to put a stamp on the name of Yousuf Raza Gilani to impose a PTI-backed minority on the majority.

The sad thing is that the ruling party has become a part of the game to undermine the political system without realising that their ‘majority’ can also be taken away at any time, if it refuses to play ball according to the rules set by its backers, who now control all levers of powers as far as the Senate is concerned.

The government may survive, but it will continue to lose the ability to work on the economy and improve governance in the face of an active protest drive by the opposition.

Many political commentators reject the popular notion that the establishment had played ‘neutral’ in Gilani’s election to the Senate despite opposition having fewer than required numbers.

“It is a misnomer. Hafeez Shaikh, who is overseeing the implementation of the International Monetary Fund [IMF] deal, was and is their man in the current dispensation. His defeat was random and a big setback for the army. Why would they [the establishment] engineer his defeat or watch him lose from the sidelines? What could Gilani give the establishment?” the analyst asks. “It only proves that it is not as easy to manipulate 342 people as it is to100 senators. Moreover, the election of Gilani underlines the fact that the popular will is still being exercised in the National Assembly at some level, even if not all the time.”

Not all the 16 so-called PTI defectors voted for Gilani. Many just wasted their vote to express their disaffection and annoyance with the government candidate or with the prime minister himself. In other words, Gilani’s win signified a partial victory of the political class, as the opposition successfully capitalised the resentment within the ruling party and poached a few treasury members.

The PTI’s internal rifts and its choice of candidate contributed in a big way to Sheikh’s defeat. Many believe that Gilani’s win does not mark any change in the military establishment’s approach to politics. They are convinced that the establishment is solidly standing behind Imran Khan, at least for now. What happens tomorrow is in the future, though.

PPP was all along seen as harping on the neutrality narrative because it has a lot to lose if the present system collapses as it is the only member party of the opposition alliance with major stakes in the present dispensation in the shape of their government in Sindh. No other opposition party has so much at stake as PPP. PML-N and JUI-F, on the other hand, have little to lose and everything to gain.

GETTING THE senate IN ORDER

Presiding officer, Senator Syed Muzafar Hussain Shah administering oath to Sadiq Sanjrani | White Star
Presiding officer, Senator Syed Muzafar Hussain Shah administering oath to Sadiq Sanjrani | White Star

Being the house of the Federation, the main purpose for the creation of the Senate of Pakistan was to give equal representation to all the federating units, counterbalancing the numerical disparity among the provinces in the National Assembly, since the membership of the lower house is based on the population of each province.

Equal provincial membership in the Senate, in theory, balances the provincial inequality in the National Assembly and alleviates fears of the smaller provinces regarding domination by any one province, because of its majority in the lower house.

The Senate of Pakistan is also a permanent house, which signifies a process of continuity and oversees the transition of power in the lower house and government.

The Senate has three main roles: legislation, oversight of the executive and representation of the federating units. The matters in the federal legislative list can be initiated in any of the houses, except the money bill, which is sent to the Senate only for recommendations.

The membership of the Senate, which was originally 45, was raised to 63 in 1977 and to 87 in 1985 under Gen Ziaul Haq, creating special seats for technocrats and ulema. The membership was again raised from 87 to 100 in 2002 by Gen Pervez Musharraf, to give representation to women as well as non-Muslim minorities.

One of the primary functions of the Senate is to encourage a much wider variety representation of political opinion in the house of the Federation. But, over the years, the increase in the number of special Senate seats — currently almost 40 out of 100 — for different groups has undermined the very purposes for which the upper house was created.

The use of huge amounts of money has further stripped the Senate of its representative character, according to many. Instead of representing a province or a federating unit, the Senators now represent their parties, which defeats the main purpose of the Senate’s existence, according to Zafarullah Khan, author and former executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services (Pips).

It is because a party can get anybody elected to the upper house from any province, even if the candidate does not have domicile of that province, where it has the required numbers. Who will a Sindhi, for example, elected from Punjab serve? Neither Sindh nor Punjab, but the leadership of the party that sends them to the Senate. Or an individual can seek his way into the Senate if he has enough money to bribe his way into the chamber.

Zafarullah Khan, who has done significant research on the evolution of parliamentary institutions in Pakistan, feels that the Senate direly needs reforms to truly become representative.

“The most important reform is to directly elect the senators on the pattern of the United States’ Senate [to make it representative of the federating units rather than of the political parties],” he says. “Direct election will increase chances of a much wider variety of opinion in the upper house, as was its real purpose as the house of the Federation. Our Senate is neither like India’s Rajya Sabha nor like the UK’s House of Lords. Ours is modelled on the American Senate, where members are elected directly by people.” The second key reform relates to the removal of the distortions created by military dictators through increased reserved seats, to strengthen their hold on the upper house.

A Lahore-based columnist points out that the Senate’s powers were enhanced after the passage of the landmark 18th amendment to the Constitution. “But it still does not have much powers. It is because of its doubtful representative nature,” he says. Like Zafarullah, he argues, direct election of Senators is crucial to restore its representative nature as house of the Federation, and reinstate its prestige and powers.

“The idea of having a Senate is to give more wider political participation,” the columnist says. “Hence, the opinion in the house of the Federation should not be reflecting the numerical strength of political parties in the provincial or National Assembly as is the case currently.”

According to him, the number of Senators who otherwise would not succeed even in local elections find their way into the upper house on the strength of their money, and do not contribute to debate and discussion on anything. “They are there because they could pay for it and would switch sides whenever they are told to do so by the establishment,” he says.

It is all because of the limited electorate. We can get rid of such people who are there just to occupy a seat because of the prestige attached to the upper house by gradually moving towards direct elections to the Senate. A larger and wider electorate will also largely reduce the establishment’s intervention in the house.

A VOTE LIKE NO OTHER

Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in a group photo with the outgoing Senate | White Star
Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani in a group photo with the outgoing Senate | White Star

Unlike in the past, this year’s Senate vote has proved to be politically more divisive, as it happened in the middle of an anti-government campaign launched by the opposition under the banner of PDM. Some of the PDM’s member parties, such as the PML-N and the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), have been expressly blaming the army for rigging the 2018 elections to help Imran Khan’s PTI grab power, and have been quite vocal against the military’s interference in the country’s politics.

Weeks before the polling, PTI started accusing the opposition of trying to purchase some of its parliamentarians to vote against Shaikh and unseat the prime minister, and went to the Supreme Court for a ruling to replace the existing secret ballot with the open vote to prevent defections.

A short video showing Gilani’s son, Ali Haider, instructing some of PTI’s parliamentarians in how to waste their vote went viral on social media on the eve of the polling. It was repeatedly used — though unsuccessfully — by PTI to convince the ECP to disqualify the opposition candidate and to allow an open ballot. Such controversies continued to occur till the last moment. The opposition also discovered ‘spy’ cameras, which it accused the government of having hidden in a voting booth.

Many analysts believe that political friction and conflict inside and outside the parliament will only increase going forward, in spite of the government’s success in having its man elected as the Senate’s chairman.

“The political temperature in the country is likely to increase in the coming weeks and months,” says analyst Hasaan Khawar. He, however, is of the view that the combined opposition would not resign from the assemblies en masse.

This despite the fact that PDM chief Maulana Fazalur Rehman is pressing the PDM parties to resign from the assemblies to make the opposition’s movement against the government more effective and force it to call new elections.

“It is a do or die kind of situation for PML-N, but I believe that PPP will try to find a constitutional resolution of the conflict with the government without destroying the system,” he argues. “They know disruption is not going to benefit the party. It has everything to lose if the system collapses.” Nonetheless, he maintains, the government has a major role to play to defuse the situation.

“The PTI administration is faced with many challenges,” Khawar points out. It also needs to advance its other legislative agenda, and to raise the electricity prices as a prior action to the revival of the suspended six-billion-dollar IMF loan deal, which is on a pause for the last one year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Then, it has to hold the local government polls before the next general elections in 2023,” Khawar adds. “Politicians, especially those in the government, must consider if the country — already trying hard to grapple with numerous issues and problems — can afford more sustained political instability. Instability may afflict huge costs on the people and economy, and must be avoided.”

WHAT LIES AHEAD

Although PDM has postponed its planned long march on the capital and deferred a decision on resignations from the assemblies, some political observers still feel that the opposition’s defeat in the Senate chairman election may likely strengthen its resolve to build momentum against Imran Khan.

The willingness of certain PTI parliamentarians to vote for the opposition, as seen in Gilani’s election could prompt the combined opposition to intensify its efforts to build pressure on the premier.

“After all, several PTI MNAs from Punjab are looking ahead to the next election and are ready to jump the party because of the government’s poor performance on the economic front,” the columnist says. The opposition, he adds, has some tricks up its sleeves to keep the government distracted from focusing on the economy and governance. He agrees, however, that the PPP’s reservations on resignations from the assemblies at the last PDM meeting and the advent of Ramazan could delay the opposition’s plans for some time now.

The majority of political observers, nevertheless, think that the prospects of removing Imran Khan from his office are nil at best if the past experience is anything to go by. “As reflected by reports of differences over resignations and long march at the PDM meeting, the opposition has to deal with its internal differences before taking any action to destabilise the government,” analyst Khawar says.

The PDM member opposition parties — mainly consisting of PPP, PML-N and JUI-F, as well as smaller nationalist groups — each have different bases of political support, political ideologies and agendas. Hence, we have seen a constant difference of opinion on what strategy PDM should pursue to achieve the only common goal of ousting PTI from power.

For the reasons discussed above, PPP has all along been stressing a step-by-step approach, which includes a no-confidence motion against the prime minister before deciding to quit the assemblies to force new elections. But PML-N and JUI-F have, so far, been advocating a long march on the capital followed by a sit-in for an indefinite period.

Both the parties are also for en masse resignations from the assemblies to force the government out, believing that PTI will not be able to organise such a huge exercise in the given circumstances. Since the opposition’s loss in the contest for the Senate chairman, Maulana Fazalur Rehman has more vociferously voiced the futility of the protests without the PDM parties first leaving the assemblies. PPP also does not agree with the PML-N strategy of calling out the army chief and his spy chief for propping up PTI in the last elections.

There are challenges for the government as well as for the opposition. The government may survive, but it will continue to lose the ability to work on the economy and improve governance in the face of an active protest drive by the opposition. The opposition may fail to force out PTI, but it will keep building momentum against it to prevent it from delivering, leading to a stalemate.

“Political polarisation has increased to a level where the chances of conflict has increased manifold,” contends Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Islamabad-based think-tank Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development (Pildat). “If this situation lingers it could result in physical violence inside and outside the parliament. The prime minister should take steps to lower the political temperature and review his narrative against the opposition.”

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 21st, 2021

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