The recent Senate elections once again exposed the soft underbelly of Pakistan’s democratic system. The unsavoury events in the course of the polls to elect members to the Upper House of Parliament showed how results can be manipulated through vote buying and how members switch their loyalties for a pot of gold.
Yusuf Raza Gilani was the opposition’s Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) candidate for the Senate seat whose constituency was the National Assembly of Pakistan. Since the government coalition has a majority in the National Assembly, there was no way Gilani could win. The PPP succeeded in convincing the PML-N to follow Asif Ali Zardari’s strategy and vote for Gilani, the person for whose disqualification the PML-N had worked so hard about a decade ago.
Since Asif Zardari was behind the move, the PTI smelled a rat and asked for open balloting to rule out the possibility of any foul play and floor-crossing. But the PDM strongly opposed the demand despite the fact that both PPP and PML-N have in the past supported open balloting for Senate elections. It may be recalled here that in 2006, the PML-N and PPP signed the Charter of Democracy, which laid down that to eliminate corruption all votes for the Senate will be by an open identifiable ballot system. But the same parties argued against the open ballot in a landmark case before the Supreme Court, only to pave the way for corruption in the 2021 Senate elections.
As planned by the PDM strategists, Gilani managed to defeat the candidate of the ruling coalition, Hafeez Shaikh, by 169 votes to 164, with seven votes rejected. But the result was not exactly a surprise in view of the events of the past few days. PTI spokesmen have alleged that tens of millions of rupees were paid for every vote, with Maryam Nawaz openly claiming it was her party’s ticket for the next general elections that was used as a bribe to lure the treasury MNAs to vote for the opposition candidate. While videos of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa MPAs accepting bribes during the 2018 elections were still making the rounds, a new video surfaced showing Gilani’s son telling government MNAs how to deliberately waste their votes in the Senate elections. Other audio clips showed Sindh government ministers promising money in return for spoiling their votes.
This is not the first time members of Parliament have sold their soul in return for money. This sordid story dates back to Changa Manga about three decades ago. The 1990s were an era of brazen horse-trading and floor-crossing. During the Musharraf interregnum, the process came to an end but has now been revived. For the PPP and the PML-N, the PTI is the common target and they have reverted to their old tricks to achieve their objective. Morality and ethics are no part of this brand of Pakistan politics. The fact that Gilani, a PPP leader, was fielded as a joint opposition candidate despite the PML-N being the largest opposition party shows how principles can be compromised for short-term gains.
The defeat in the Senate elections has come as a big jolt for the PTI government, undermining its standing among the public. It forced the Prime Minister to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly and convince the government supporters that the situation is under control. But the PTI is not yet out of the woods, especially when the adversaries are a wily Zardari and an amoral PML-N leadership, who want to topple the government by any means, fair or foul.
It appears the political situation will become more difficult for the PTI. Let alone constitutional amendments, even ordinary legislation will be stonewalled in the Upper House. Add to this the fact that members of the allied parties in the ruling coalition are not immune to inducements from the Opposition. Corruption, bribery, and stealing votes are now deeply embedded in Pakistan’s political culture.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has easily won the vote of confidence in the National Assembly. As many as 178 lawmakers voted in favour of a resolution tabled in the Lower House. The votes he secured are six more than the simple majority of the House and two more than the tally he clinched on August 17, 2018 as PM. But we must remember that Imran Khan’s government rests on the support of 178 MNAs, which also include 16 dissenters, who had voted for Yusuf Raza Gilani in the March 3 Senate vote.
Much will, however, depend upon the government’s own performance — particularly on the economic front. So far the PTI has not been able to translate into practice its promise to bring relief to the people. Without improving its governance and controlling the price spiral, it cannot successfully negotiate the challenge from the PDM.