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A Hard Sell Senate Election

Why the March 2021 Senate election has become the most high-strung affair of its kind in recent memory

A reference to the Supreme Court of Pakistan followed up by a first-ever conditional presidential ordinance; Supreme Court proceedings that have generated enough controversy for a whole generation; an emboldened opposition baying for the blood of the government; a ruling party acting brave and strong while coming apart at the seams.

These are some of the factors that have contributed to the unprecedented hype in the run-up to the coming Senate election. The fissures within the ranks of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have already become visible in all provinces, but in Sindh, KP and Balochistan, after the party leadership announced its candidates on 12 February 2021.

The strong reaction from its local chapters in the provinces over some nominations forced the leadership to go into an emergency session at Banigala on 16 February, a day before the extended deadline for submission of nominations by the candidates, to review the list in an effort to avert an insurgency-like situation.

Unlike other parties, the PTI had not formally invited applications from the ticket aspirants and the candidates were finalised solely on the “recommendations” of members of the parliamentary board headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In Balochistan, the PTI had initially awarded ticket to Abdul Qadir, but later the leadership withdrew it and nominated Zahoor Agha as the sole party candidate on a general seat from the province. Abdul Qadir, however, is still in the race as an independent candidate.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa too, the PTI withdrew a general ticket from Najeebullah Khattak and gave it to another party man Liaquat Tarakai.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, rejected the objections and reservations shown by the local chapter on the nominations of Faisal Vawda and Saifullah Abro, the PTI’s candidates on a general and a technocrat seat respectively from Sindh.

There is no doubt about PTI becoming the single largest party in the upper house of the parliament after the 3 March poll, but the fact that it will not be in a driving seat and will still have to rely on its allies and the opposition parties even for carrying out simple legislation has perhaps mad PTI a little jittery which is evident from the haphazard moves which it made in order to seek an open vote for the Senate.

A careful calculation is done on the basis of the party position in the National Assembly and all the four provincial legislatures, which form the constituencies for the Senate election, shows that if all the MPAs vote strictly in accordance with the party policy, then the country is going to have a completely hung Senate. So much so, that there is even a possibility that both the ruling and opposition alliances will have exactly the equal number of seats in the new Senate – i.e., a 50-50 stalemate in the 100-member house.

The calculations based on the party position in all the legislatures reveal that if all the legislators vote in line with the policy of their respective parties, the PTI is expected to win 20 seats, followed by six seats each by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) and five by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

If things indeed turn out this way, the PTI, which got representa- tion in the Senate for the first time in 2015, will become the single largest party in the Senate with 27 senators, followed by the PPP with 19, PML-N with 17 and BAP with 13 senators.

The most interesting contest is expected on the two seats of Islam- abad — one general and one women’s — for which polling will be held in the National Assembly. A one-on-one contest between PTI’s Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh and former prime minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, a joint candidate of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), is expected on the only general seat from the capital. Dr Shaikh had previously served as the finance minister in Mr Gilani’s cabinet.

The competition between Mr Gilani and Mr Shaikh has acquired great significance because of the party position in the National Assembly where the ruling alliance has a majority of just 20 votes. The PDM leadership believes that Mr Gilani can secure the seat if he runs his campaign seriously as there are reports that many in the ruling alliance are unhappy over the leadership’s decision to award the ticket to Dr Shaikh, considered an outsider and known in the PTI ranks as a parachute.

The PTI must sweep the election in KP where it has been ruling for the past eight years. It is expected to win 10 out of 12 seats from KP. The remaining two seats can go to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) and the Awami National Party (ANP), which are contesting the election jointly from the platform of the opposition Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). In Punjab, the main contest will be between the PML-N and the PTI and the latter is expected to win five seats, including three general seats. The party is expected to get two seats from Sindh and one from Balochistan, besides winning both the seats from Islamabad. The formerly ruling PML-Q, which had become extinct in the Senate in 2015, is set to once again get representation in the upper house as the PTI has agreed to support PML-Q’s Kamil Ali Agha on a general seat from Punjab.

While the PML-N is expected to see its senators returning to the Senate only from Punjab, the PPP will be getting representation only from Sindh. However, the PPP is expecting to get more than its share as the party leadership is hopeful that Mr Gilani will manage to win the seat from Islamabad.

The urban Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) can easily clinch a general seat due to its 21 MPAs in Sindh Assembly. However, more seats for the party depend on its understanding with the PTI and Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) as both the parties are part of the ruling alliance at the Centre.

In Balochistan, BAP is expected to win six Senate seats while the remaining seats may be divided among the JUI-F and BNP-Men- gal. The ANP also has a chance to win a seat from the province with the support of other nationalist parties.

The Senate, which is also known as the House of Federation, comprises 104 members — 23 each from the four federating units, eight from the former FATA, and four from Islamabad. The 23 seats allocated to a province comprise 14 general seats, four reserved for women, four for technocrats and one for minority member. The next Senate will comprise of 100 seats as 4 FATA seats will be abolished.

The term of a senator is six years but 50 per cent of the total number retires after every three years and election is held for new senators.

Over 65 per cent of the senators who are set to retire on 11 March after completing their six-year constitutional term belong to the opposition parties with PML-N being the biggest loser as 59 percent of its members — the largest number belonging to a single party — are set to retire.

Out of 28 present PML-N senators, 16 are set to retire in March. Mushahidullah Khan, who died on Feb 18 in Islamabad after a protracted illness, was also among those who would be retiring on 11 March and his party had once again approved a ticket for him to contest on a general seat from Punjab. The former finance minister of the PML-N Ishaq Dar has not taken oath as a senator since he has been living in a self-exile in London along with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Leader of the Opposition Raja Zafar-ul-Haq and former informa- tion minister Pervaiz Rasheed are prominent among the retiring PML-N senators. Mr Haq has already declared that he has no desire to contest the Senate election after enjoying the positions of the Leader of the House as well as the Opposition Leader.

Since the PML-N will no more be the largest opposition party in the Senate, therefore, there is a possibility that leadership of opposition in the new Senate will go to the PPP.

Deputy Chairman Senate Saleem Mandviwala, parliamentary leader Sherry Rehman, former interior minister Rehman Malik and former law minister Farooq Naek are among the eight PPP senators retiring. When the other three are set to return to the Senate, Rehman Malik has been denied a party ticket this time. The party has replaced him with veteran Taj Haider.

Out of 14 present PTI senators, seven are due to retire. The most prominent among those retiring from the PTI are federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Shibli Faraz, Mohsin Aziz and Nauman Wazir Khattak. Both Mr Faraz and Mr Aziz have managed to get the party ticket again from KP, but Mr Khattak will not be there in the new Senate.

As many as 52 senators — 50 per cent of the 104-member house — are retiring on 11 March after completing their six-year term. However, this time there will be no polling for the four seats of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) after its merger with the KP.

Therefore, polling will be held to elect 48 senators — 12 each from KP and Balochistan, 11 each from Punjab and Sindh and two from Islamabad. Polling will be held to elect seven members on general seats, two women and two technocrats in the four provinces. Besides this, the election on one minority seat each in KP and Balochistan will also be conducted.

In sum, the political temperature this time around is hotter, the field shiftier, and the stakes higher than ever before, making the March 2021 Senate election the most high-strung affair of its kind in recent memory – truly an election to behold.

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