In the past, Pakistan’s Senate has often functioned as a debating club with numerous perks, a grandiloquent echo chamber where little of importance takes place. Its 104 members are elected to six-year terms by provincial legislators, a low-key process that rarely produces a ripple in the nation’s political scene, reported The Washington Post.
This month’s Senate elections, however, produced a firestorm.
For two weeks, an extraordinary drama unfolded in the Senate, full of spectacle and allegations of skulduggery. There were passionate pleas to save democracy and reports of secret payments made to secure seats. It all ended March 12 in a shocking if symbolic defeat for the governing Pakistan Muslim League-N, striking a new blow against the party as it struggles to retain power in elections slated for this summer and raising concerns about political interference by the country’s security agencies.
The frenzied machinations also saw the departure of the Senate’s respected chairman, Raza Rabbani, a liberal lion from the Pakistan People’s Party and veteran of national anti-dictatorship campaigns, who retired and was replaced by a little-known independent politician from remote Baluchistan province by the name of Sadiq Sanjrani. His ascent from obscurity was allegedly engineered in a tumultuous shake-up of the Baluchistan legislature.
Much of the action occurred in full view, with blanket TV coverage of chaotic Senate goings-on. But critics alleged that the process was also influenced by less-visible forces, including security agencies, to weaken the Muslim League, headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The party has been fighting for its life since Sharif was ousted by the Supreme Court last year in a corruption case.
“Did you see the spectacle, how the Senate was turned into a marketplace where votes were bought and sold?” Maryam Nawaz, Sharif’s daughter, complained angrily at a rally of supporters Sunday. She said the election of Sanjrani, even after Sharif’s party had won a slim 33-seat majority, was “an insult to the people and the sanctity of the vote”.
Beyond partisan politics, critics denounced these developments as a serious setback to Pakistan’s wobbly democracy, which has endured repeated cycles of military intervention in civilian governance since the country was founded in 1947. The army overthrew Sharif in his previous term as prime minister in 1999 after growing uneasy with his insistence on civilian supremacy and outreach to rival India. Full electoral democracy was not restored until 2008 after months of protests.
“The transition that started in 2008 is getting derailed, and the whole democratic project is now at stake,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator from the Awami National Party. In an essay in the Nation newspaper Sunday, Khattak asserted that Pakistan’s “real rulers” in the military and civilian bureaucracy had gained control over the electoral process, then used pressure, rivalries and “dirty deals” to get an inexperienced, malleable individual named to head the Senate. “Everything smacked of mala fide,” he wrote.
Babar Sattar, a lawyer and analyst in Islamabad, was equally euphemistic — and equally blunt. Writing in the News International, he said the Senate elections showed how Pakistan’s unnamed “gamekeeper” was holding the country’s democracy on a “very short leash”. With money and pressure used to tear the Baluchistan legislature apart, he wrote, Sanjrani “was plucked out of thin air”, while Rabbani, a man of candor and courage who had turned the Senate chair into a pulpit for justice, was “cut to size”.
The surprising winner of the unseemly brawl was former president Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the current co-chair of the Pakistan People’s Party. Zardari, though aloof in public, is known as a shrewd politician. He made a deal with his party’s archrival, former cricket star Imran Khan, to form an alliance against Sharif in the Senate elections. Even though Sharif’s party won a majority of seats, the Zardari-Khan pact created enough opposition votes to choose the new chair.
It seems unlikely that this pact between two bitter rivals could survive the pressures of the coming national electoral campaign, but with Sharif politically weakened and still facing corruption charges, the contest is up for grabs.
Pakistan’s military leader, Army General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has repeatedly vowed not to interfere in civilian rule or politics, but Sharif and his allies claim that a shadow campaign by anti-democratic forces within the state helped unite Sharif’s opponents in the Senate. Some said they fear similar manipulation could influence the general election and block the Muslim League — still the country’s most popular party — from winning.
“Nawaz Sharif, and anyone else who tries to establish the supremacy of Parliament and to make all other state organs subservient to it, will be punished,” said Muhammad Usman Khan Kakar, a senator from Balochistan. “What happened in the Senate brought a bad name to our democracy. We fear such political engineering will take place in general elections as well.”
Some analysts took a more dispassionate view, saying that Sharif’s partisan opponents merely played a smarter hand. Hasan Askari Rizvi, an analyst in Lahore, suggested that by accusing the military of engineering Sharif’s Senate defeat, the former prime minister and his aides were selling a “very simplistic view” to voters rather than admitting they faced internal dissent.
Control of the Senate matters for other reasons as well. As “custodian” of Pakistan’s federation, it has power over decisions on how much federal funding to disburse among the four provinces. Its chairman is third in line to replace the prime minister. Also, its ratification is needed to pass most significant legislation passed by the National Assembly.
In 2010, the Senate’s support was crucial to passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution, a milestone law that reversed some authoritarian excesses of past military rule — provisions that some in the security establishment reportedly want to see restored. One senator who pushed for that law was Farhatullah Babar, 74, a longtime official of the Pakistan People’s Party and one of the body’s most eloquent orators.
This month, Babar’s term in the Senate ended, but not before he delivered an impassioned farewell speech.
“I am deeply concerned about the continuous erosion of parliamentary sovereignty, about the judicialisation of politics and politicization of the judiciary, about the security establishment growing into a state within state,” Babar said. “I have become a stranger to this House, but I will never become a stranger to the causes which I have been fighting. The fight will go on . . . and the voices raised in this House will never be stifled.”