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How to become a senator

Following the failure of the political parties to agree on measures to block horse-trading in the elections for the Senate, the stage is set for the sale and purchase of lawmakers’ votes at record rates.

On March 5, the MNAs and MPAs will exercise their right of vote to elect through secret ballot 54 members, or half the strength, of the Senate, including the newly-created four seats for the minorities. Last-minute efforts to get the legislators to elect the senators through a ‘show of hand’ or put in place some other measures to identify them from their ballot paper by further amending the much-amended 1973 constitution didn’t work out. Now that the MNAs and MPAs will be able to cast their ballot in secret as they used to do in the past, there is every possibility that some of them would vote for those moneyed candidates who made them the right offer to buy their votes. Lawmakers will become lawbreakers if they opt to vote on the basis of money instead of conscience.

If one were to believe media reports and the tit-bit of information that is leaked causing embarrassment to both the legislators and the Senate candidates, the going rate for one vote for the general seats in the Upper House of parliament has risen to Rs25 million. It could rise further if the competing candidates start offering more to outbid their rivals. The price of the vote depends on the intensity of the contest, the presence of a high number of wealthy candidates, the numerical strength of the parties in a particular provincial assembly, and past practices in Senate polls in the province concerned.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) top the list in terms of the price of the vote as only 11 MNAs (one seat is vacant) are to elect four members of the Senate. The tribal MNAs can demand any amount for their precious vote or field their brothers as candidates – as some of them have already done. One has heard unbelievably fantastic sums of money being offered for a single vote, but these figures shouldn’t come as a surprise in view of the price of vote in the previous Senate elections. After all, one has to keep in mind the inflation rate while making a bid to buy the vote of an MNA from Fata!

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are next in line as the provinces where intense vote-buying has taken place in the past and will likely happen again this time. The entry of independent candidates in the contest for Senate seats is an unmistakable sign that votes will be bought at a hefty price. Some independent contestants, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have made a habit of contesting and winning Senate elections by approaching disgruntled MPAs belonging to political parties and making an offer that is hard to refuse.

Sadly enough, all this is happening in full public view and yet there are no measures in sight to stop this unsightly spectacle. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the PTI chairman Imran Khan – despite their acute political differences – tried to stop the vote-buying, but their eleventh hour initiative has yet to make any headway to unanimously move a constitutional amendment to conduct the Senate polls through open rather than secret ballot. Time is running out and it seems this late move is unlikely to materialise. The PPP and the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who isn’t happy with the prime minister despite being his ally, are there to ensure that no new constitutional amendment is adopted at this late stage of the schedule of the Senate elections.

Most of the political parties have been forced to field moneyed candidates to match rivals who may try to buy their MPAs. The parties are struggling to protect their legislators from falling prey to tempting offers of money being made by rival candidates. One party managed to rope in an independent candidate into its fold not only to shield its MPAs, but also to ensure that it would get representation in the Senate through his victory. It was a smart move as its MPAs are likely to get paid for their vote by the candidate ‘owned’ by the party instead of being tempted to vote for an independent contestant.

A glance at the strategies adopted by the parties betrays an urge to win seats in the Senate at any cost. Former President Asif Ali Zardari wants to win two Senate seats from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but his party doesn’t have the numbers in the provincial assembly to make this happen. His Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has only five MPAs in the province and yet it has fielded four candidates for the Senate in the hope that two of them would be able to win seats. In terms of statistics, this is an impossible task, but this hasn’t dampened the spirit of the PPP leadership to achieve its objective by whatever means possible, including the possible use of money. Zardari would like to retain the PPP’s majority in the Senate and also have his nominee elected as its chairman and this would become possible if the party is able to win seats not only from its stronghold of Sindh, but also from the other provinces.

The ANP too has five MPAs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and it has also fielded four candidates. Even if one or two of them are serious candidates, how can they possibly win on the basis of the strength of five party MPAs when the minimum votes needed in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly to win a general seat in the Senate is 17? Other parties too have put up more candidates than their strength in the national and provincial legislatures.

A seat-sharing deal could have enabled the five opposition parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to get a share of the five Senate seats that they would have likely won against the tripartite alliance of the PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami and the small Awami Jamhoor Ittehad Pakistan (AJIP) ruling the province. However, in absence of the any seat-sharing deal for which talks were held without achieving a breakthrough, the JUI-F, PML-N, Aftab Sherpao’s QWP, ANP and PPP are now contesting the Senate election on their own. In the process, the field has been thrown wide open and certain moneyed and new candidates have obtained tickets from political parties much to the anger of the loyal party cadres. Voices of dissent in these parties are being heard and a few legislators have publicly threatened not to vote for party candidates unless certain conditions are met.

The Senate elections have put democracy to a test and the political parties on trial. In the past, Changa Manga, Murree and Swat became the metaphor for horse-trading in the country’s politics and the malaise has continued and become bigger in recent years. One has heard stories of bags of currency notes being delivered by candidates to legislators as the price for their vote along with a small edition of the Holy Quran to facilitate them to swear that they would vote as told after having taken possession of the money.

The Senate was supposed to be the abode of wise men and women who had achieved distinction in different walks of life. It was to be the repository of knowledge and experience befitting the prestige of the Upper House of parliament. Senators were required to uphold the rights of the provinces to which they belonged, but now inhabitants of one province are given party tickets to contest from another province in an open display of cronyism and favouritism. Expecting the Senate to come up to expectations would be asking for too much in view of the means used to become a senator.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.

Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com

Rahimullah Yusufzai, "How to become a senator," The News. 2015-03-01.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Political parties , Political process , Senate election , Horse trading , Constitutional amendment , Constitutions-Pakistan , MNAs , MPAs , Pakistan