Published Apr 27, 2018 07:50am

‘Seats’ that change loyalties

Tahir Mehdi

NAMING 20 of its members in the KP Assembly, the PTI recently alleged that the legislators had ‘sold’ their votes in the Senate elections held last month. Earlier, an investigation by the PML-N had identified 28 party members in Punjab who had helped an opposition candidate win a seat in the same elections.

These purported acts of deceit were followed by publicly announced defections. A number of PML-N parliamentarians from south Punjab severed ties with their party and then a PML-N member elected on a minority seat from Sindh decided to quit too, weeks before the completion of the government’s tenure. Open season actually commenced in January this year, when PML-N members in Balochistan overthrew their chief minister and elected a new one. The trend is likely to continue, if not heighten, in the coming weeks.

Defections are not unusual in times of elections as political actors adjust to evolving party and constituency realities and attempt to stake claims in slots in the next government. There are, however, some new characteristics concerning defections, both public and secretive, that have emerged: most defectors are either from reserved seats, or are independents who join a party after winning. This new trend points to weaknesses in our system of representation that will have a long-term impact on party politics.

Pakistan follows a party-list system for election to reserved seats whereby parties win a portion of the reserved seats pool (60 women and 10 minority members in the National Assembly) proportionate to their share of the general seats they have won. This is then filled by party nominees.

While defections are not unusual before elections, this time the trend has some new characteristics.

The members elected through this system do not have a geographical constituency and thus no constituents to be answerable to. They don’t have to run election campaigns, neither do they have to bear the pain of maintaining a relationship with constituents. All they need is being well connected within party hierarchies. The maintenance of this relationship is simple as well — just keep towing the party line. The constituency-less members have a one-sided relationship with their parties and are not supposed to have any politics of their own.

In comparison, members elected from constituencies have to sustain a relationship with their constituents. Their position within the parties is also dependent on the strength of this relationship and their ‘electability’.

Equally important is the fact that a good performance by reserved seat members on the floor of the house or as party representatives is no guarantee of their re-election. For parties, they are dispensable individuals, mere numbers, as denying one another chance does not deprive the party of any political capital or constituency. They are used by party leaderships to create the desired equation of power among various intra-party lobbies and groups.

There are only four women members on reserved seats in the present National Assembly who were elected in 2008 and 2013. Additionally, four were elected in 2002 and 2013 — but not in 2008. There is one women parliamentarian on a reserved seat, Shagufta Jumani (PPP, Sindh), who had been elected in all three elections held since this system was adopted. The other, Asiya Nasir (JUI-F, Balochistan) was elected on seats reserved for minorities in 2002 and 2013 and on a women’s seat in 2008. Ramesh Lal, PPP, is the only MNA elected on seats reserved for minorities in the three previous elections beginning 2002.

This indicates a high turnover implying that chances of a woman being re-elected on a reserved seat are low. Their nomination is like a once-in-a-lifetime lucky draw unless they come from families with a well-entrenched lobby within the party.

But after a five-year term, these parliamentarians do develop stakes in politics and want to sustain their progress. Their disloyalty is thus as much an outcome of the weakness of our representation system as it is an expression of their personal character. It can only be checked by introducing systemic changes that give these women a constituency. Besides, this once-in-a-lifetime status is certainly not going to help create a female leadership, which was the objective of this reservation.

The second among recent defectors are the members who had won elections as independents and joined a party afterwards. The legal window for this was opened by Gen Musharraf when he amended the law after the preliminary results of the 2002 polls made it clear that his ‘king’s party’ had not secured enough numbers to form a government.

There have been many opportunities since then to shut this window, including the overhaul of election laws in 2017, but no party deemed it wise to deprive themselves of this low-hanging fruit. Short-sighted parties, in fact, consider this a boon since it not only helps them improve their general seats tallies, but also results in a bigger share of reserved seats.

There are many instances when an independent candidate joined a party after beating the same party’s candidate. Three Balochistan MNAs joined the PML-N after winning the 2013 elections from constituencies NA 265-267 where the party candidates had polled just 2.6 per cent of the total vote. So the PML-N had these members in its ranks without having a presence in their constituencies.

The independents ‘personally’ win an election but they do not intend to remain independent throughout their tenures neither do they opt to join the opposition and stay away from power. They take the risk of contesting on their own so that they can join the ranks of whichever party forms the government. They thus deliver the party-in-power to their constituents and not the other way round.

This is a skewed relationship in which a party is dispensable for an individual politician. Is it a surprise then that these members jump at the next best opportunity to advance their careers?

Individual politicians contesting, and winning, as independents is a sign of weakness of party politics and by accepting them among their ranks, parties only perpetuate this weakness. Independents do help parties reach bigger numbers but numbers can be deceptive and this becomes evident only at the times of a crisis, when it is already too late for any corrective measure to be taken.

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

Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2018

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