The controversial Senate elections in Pakistan

By Avishek Deb

Pakistan concluded one of its most controversial Senate elections on the 3rd of March 2018. The elections took place amidst deep political turmoil, following the indictment of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges stemming from revelations in the leaked Panama Papers. Due to this, candidates from Sharif’s party ran as independents. Notwithstanding these setbacks, Nawaz Sharif’s party, the PML-N, emerged as the largest party with 33 seats in the 104 member house.

The background to the vote

The Senate is Pakistan’s version of the Indian Rajya Sabha. Pakistan’s Upper House holds elections every three years to replace half of the 104 sitting members. Each member serves for a term of six years. Serving members of the country’s National and Provincial Assemblies participate in the electoral process instead of the general public. This system is analogous to the Rajya Sabha elections where an electoral college formed by members of the national and state assemblies vote for candidates to the Upper House.

As such, the outcome of the polls tends to be predictable, based on the proportional representation of each party in the assemblies. However, the use of a transferable vote and secret ballots have sometimes led to surprising results.

Source of the current controversy

PML-N won 15 seats, PPP won 12 seats, and PTI came third with 6 seats in the election. However, the poll result did not go well for either Nawaz Sharif, former leader of the ruling PML-N party, or Imran Khan, leader of the opposition PTI. Both of them alleged wrongdoing, with Imran Khan claiming that members of his party betrayed him by ‘selling’ their votes. Their allegations are based on the fact that many seats that were expected to go to PTI and PML-N instead went to PPP.

There were several aberrations in the result. In Punjab, PML-N-backed candidates won 11 out of 12 seats. In Sindh, the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) was the biggest loser, bagging only one seat despite having 37 seats in the Sindh Assembly. The PPP clinched ten seats from Sindh to take its total strength to 20 against an expected 17. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), 17 PTI legislators allegedly sold their votes to enable 2 PPP candidates to be elected to the Senate from the province although PPP has only 7 MPAs.

The system must be cleaned up

No matter how one looks at the data, the numbers just do not add up. An initial investigation ordered by KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak concluded that at least 17 PTI members were involved in horse trading in KP province. Imran Khan requested that the Supreme Court and Election Commission investigate the elections. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Election Commission has responded yet, but going by the mood of politicians and the general public it is expected that an inquiry will be launched.

These events have invited calls for reform of the electoral process from all quarters of the country. Horse trading and the selling of votes undermine the very foundation of democracy. Proper safeguards need to be put in place to avoid these kinds of incidents, and laws need to be enacted to mete out severe punishment to defecting party members.


Featured Image Source: Wikimedia