The Senate chairman’s election came as a great setback to the ruling PML-N. Although the largest party in the Senate, the PML-N could not manage enough votes and was beaten by an unlikely combination of PPP and PTI backed by some small political groups. Some PML-N members also chimed in and played a role in the opposition’s surprise win.
It was yet another reverse that the PML-N has suffered on both legal and political fronts in recent months. What happened in the course of the Senate chairman’s election was a culmination of the political move initiated by Asif Zardari in Balochistan as a result of which the provincial government of Sardar Sanaullah Zehri was overthrown. It was an unexpected defeat for the ruling party which was caught off-guard at a critical moment.
That was a clear warning to the PML-N that the wind had begun to blow in the reverse direction. It took the challenge seriously and, being the single largest party in the upper house, was confident that it would win the prized top post. It also played an ace by signaling its assent for making PPP’s Raza Rabbani a consensus candidate.
But it had not reckoned with the wily Asif Zardari who manoeuvered behind the scenes to frustrate the PML-N’s plans. The PTI joining hands with the PPP was not really a surprise as their common objective was to prevent the PML-N from taking control of the upper house. The two were joined by smaller parties and some disgruntled PML-N members who saw the ruling party’s bid to grab the Senate chairmanship as a threat to the system itself.
The PPP-PTI partnership thwarted the PML-N’s attempt to establish control over both houses of parliament. Winning the Senate election was particularly important for the ruling party to be able to change the laws in order to remove the disqualification of the former prime minister. The Senate election had also assumed greater significance because of rising political polarisation and the approach of the general elections. In the last moments of a close fight, the PML-N committed a tactical mistake by nominating Raja Zafar ul Haq, a weak candidate.
Disqualified ex-PM Nawaz Sharif who has unleashed a series of virulent attacks on the judiciary had made no secret of his plans to bring in new legislation to curtail the powers of the judiciary. Winning the Senate’s top slot would have been a step towards that. So, the battle was not just about the control of the upper house of parliament. The larger aim was to kill any possibility of political revival of a twice disgraced Nawaz Sharif. Senate chairmanship would have given a massive moral and political boost to the PML-N Guide for Life.
Some observers have interpreted the Senate election results as an indicator of the shape of things to come. The PML-N candidate not only lost but lost by a big margin. The outcome was the result of arch political rivals PPP and PTI coalescing into a marriage of convenience. Analysts have argued that although PPP and PTI are politically and ideologically far apart, the possibility of seat adjustment in the coming elections and stray electoral alliances against the PM-N, the common enemy, cannot be ruled out, especially in the crucial province of Punjab
From another perspective, the outcome of the Senate chairman election has further embittered the PML-N and deepened its animus against the Establishment. PML-N supporters admit that there was a convergence of interests between the PPP and PTI but they do not discount the hand of the deep state in the whole episode. According to them, the tell-tale signs range from political re-engineering in Balochistan and the emergence of an independent group of newly elected senators from that province to the defeat of PML-N in the numbers game in the Senate elections.
What fate now awaits Nawaz Sharif? His shrill speeches in public notwithstanding, he is a picture of a man sinking deeper into political depression with each passing day. The biggest challenge for him is to maintain unity in the PML-N ranks in the aftermath of the latest setback. He is no longer official head of the party and with corruption cases against him coming to a concluding stage, he seems to be fast losing his grip over the party machine.
In these circumstances defections from the party are bound to grow in the coming days. The party is now divided between Sharif loyalists headed by Maryam Nawaz and supporters of Shahbaz Sharif who are in favour of evolving an understanding with the Establishment. Support for this line of action has gained traction after the latest warning by the top military leadership that it stands with the judiciary in its efforts to bring the corrupt to account and improve governance for the solution of people’s basic problems of daily life.
The growing judicial activism is a direct result of the failure of the democratic system to deliver. The fact is that democracy in Pakistan has over the years become a smokescreen for rule by a small group of Sharif family members, which weakened civilian institutions and parliament, creating a vacuum to be filled by non-political forces.