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Why we need to Enact Direct Election for Senate

Article by: Wajih Abbasi

Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced that the coming Senate elections will be held through a show of hands. He said there are always accusations of rigging at the time of Senate elections and to end the same he has decided that the elections will be held not by secret ballot but by show of hands. To come into effect the proposal will need amending the constitution which requires two-third of the majority in both houses of Parliament. Ruling PTI lacks such a majority in any of the houses. That is the reason that Imran Khan has thrown the ball in the court of the opposition.

Elections for half of the seats in the Senate are scheduled to take place by coming March. Show of hand can be used in simple, yes and no type referendum but voting in multiple seat constituencies to be filled through multiple-choice votes, which Senate elections entails, through such a simplistic voting procedure is difficult to visualize.

Having said that let’s accept that present system being used for election of senators is highly abused, non-representative, and undemocratic and does not reflect the actual choice of people of the provinces which Senate is meant to represent. Above all there have always been unfortunate accusations and reports of votes being cast by electoral college members for nothing but monetary considerations.

Under the Constitution, all elections should be held by secret voting. This is done to ensure that the voter can cast his/her vote freely without any pressure, threat, coercion, intimidation or lure. These are noble principles in cases where votes are being cast to represent the personal opinion of the voter.

However, voters in Senate elections are members of the national and provincial assemblies. These members are representatives of the electorate who voted them to these assemblies because of the fact that they represented a particular political party. The voting power they have is a trust to them from their electorate which has to be used in accordance with the wishes of their electorate.

As people express their wishes by voting a particular political party during general elections those elected through these elections have to reflect these wishes of their electorate while using any power they have by virtue of being a member.

However, here is a situation where we see no particular emphasis on members necessarily following party lines during these elections. It seems the framers of the constitution never wanted total submission of the members of the national and provincial assemblies to their parties during Senate elections.

During their tenure, members of national and provincial assemblies cast three types of votes. Firstly, during the election of the President, members of the Senate, and while electing or removing the Speaker of the assembly concerned or Chairman of the Senate. Second is a vote cast for ascertaining the majority leader in the house for his/her subsequent elevation as Prime Minister in the center and Chief Minister in the province concerned or removal of the same. All these occasions come only a few times during the tenure of a house. The third is normal day to day voting on legislative proposals and resolutions.

Significantly, the framers of the Constitution envisaged secret ballot for deciding matters in the first category (including election of President, senators and custodian of the house concerned) but required a show of hands for voting on legislative proposals and resolutions.

The distinction becomes even clearer when we realize Article 63-A while defining defection only mentions voting against party lines at the time of vote of election or removal of Prime Minister or a Chief Minister or at times of a constitutional amendment. Votes cast during the election of President, senators, or custodian of the house concerned are neither investigated nor is there any penalty if anyone is found casting his /her votes against the direction of the party concerned.

This clearly means the framers of the Constitution intended to give some freedom of choice to the members elected on party tickets while casting their votes in those elections but follow the party lines while voting in the leader of the house and on legislative proposals. Unfortunately, that freedom is increasingly being misused for ostensibly monetary considerations and will have to be checked and changed.

Secondly, the Upper House in a bicameral system is by definition meant to give a representation of all hues of public opinion from across the country. The current system is unmistakably weighted in favor of the party majority of a provincial assembly. It is common for a party getting a third of votes in a general election for a provincial assembly to secure a majority in the house concerned. The party uses that majority to get almost two-third of the Senate seats allocated for that province. That means one-third of the electorate in a province gets two-third representation in the senate and two-third of the electorate to remain voiceless. That is highly undemocratic and unrepresentative and must be remedied.

Thirdly, there are two Senate elections during the tenure of a provincial assembly, the second taking place close to the end of its tenure. Public support for the majority party at that time may not be the same as it was when members of the provincial assembly were elected. A house reflecting such an outdated mandate can never be called representative.

The remedy lies in changing the current system for Senate elections and allowing general public in the province concerned to elect their Senators directly. For this, a proportional representation system based on party lists could be adopted. All seats from a province including general, women and technocrat can be amalgamated.

The electorate can vote for party lists with each party getting seats in Senate in accordance with percentage of votes it receives in the province concerned. Each province can also be divided into two Senate districts, each going to polls at the end of its six-year term.

This system can also empower the citizens of Islamabad to have a voice in who represents them in the Senate. Presently, the whole National Assembly elects Senators from Islamabad and the citizens have no say in the matter. It is common for the majority party in National Assembly to ‘import’ Senate candidates from a province to represent Islamabad. A direct election will change that and citizens from Islamabad will have their own representation.

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