NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 15

Senate upset: A blessing in disguise for PM Imran Khan?

Prime Minister Imran Khan faced a severe blow when his party candidate for a Senate seat in Islamabad lost election to the opposition. At least 15 of his party members voted against him. He had to seek a fresh vote of confidence from the National Assembly as the defeat implied that he had lost trust of the House.

However, Prime Minister Imran Khan has emerged more powerful after the stunning blow. After obtaining the vote of confidence, he has scuttled a possible no-trust motion by the opposition against him in the next six months. It is fact that his choice of the candidate for the important seat was wrong. Finance Minister Hafeez Shaikh was a weak candidate as compared to former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. It is also a fact that the Election Commission of Pakistan failed to ensure transparency in the process, especially after a leaked video and phone call of Gilani’s son and a Sindh minister respectively. The election was held according to the old practice of secret voting, as was opined by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. However, the court also had ordered the Election Commission of Pakistan to ensure transparency and fairness in the election, but it failed.

The Supreme Court had suggested that the ECP could use the latest technology to hold transparent elections. “The Election Commission is required to take all available measures including utilising technologies to fulfill the solemn constitutional duty to ensure that the election is conducted honestly, justly, fairly and in accordance with law and that corrupt practices are guarded against,” it ruled. However, the ECP failed to use technology despite an offer of help by the government.

The ECP also failed to ensure the court ruling which said the secrecy of the ballot papers was “not final,” which meant that secrecy in Senate elections was not absolute or eternal and it was up to the ECP to choose a method for the polls such as printing a barcode or serial number on the ballot papers. After the court opinion, the ECP also needed to ensure identifiable ballots, proportional representation and free and fair elections. However, the result shows as the election was held on the old pattern and the main opposition parties, PPP and PML-N, also resorted to the past practice of horse-trading, which they have perfected after being in the government and opposition alternatively for decades.

According to the number of MNAs, the PTI and its allies should have won the seat from Islamabad with a majority. The result itself proves the failure of the ECP to hold fair elections. In the National Assembly, the ruling alliance enjoys the support of 180 members whereas 161 members belong to the opposition alliance. Gilani bagged 169 votes, while Hafeez Shaikh received 164 votes. Seven votes were rejected. The PTI coalition lost 17 votes for the general seat of Islamabad, including seven rejected votes. The ruling coalition also lost seven votes in the women’s seat, including five rejected votes.

It is a fact that Prime Minister Imran Khan took the opposition lightly when it fielded Gilani for the Islamabad seat. He was overconfident of his candidate’s win because he had the required strength. It was also expected that nobody would dare sell and buy votes after the Supreme Court opinion and media coverage of the Senate polls. It is also a fact that Gilani was a better candidate as compared to Shaikh. Gilani has been in politics for decades and he ran his campaign very effectively. He may also have been backed by PTI MNAs from South Punjab, because legislators of backward areas always prefer a local candidate.

The opposition also used all possible resources to win the seat to create an impression that Prime Minister Imran Khan has lost the confidence of the National Assembly after Gilani’s victory, because only Members of National Assembly (MNAs) elect two senators from Islamabad. The opposition largely succeeded in its mission. However, the victory on the women’s seat dispels the impression that Imran Khan had lost a majority in the National Assembly at any moment.

The vote of confidence also proved his majority. He received 178 votes in the 342-member National Assembly, two more than what he had received when was elected the Prime Minister in 2018. The opposition boycotted the proceedings because it knew it could not dislodge him through a no-trust motion. However, it will continue efforts to destabilize the system. It will continue attacks on his party’s governments in the Centre and Punjab, where he enjoys a thin majority. He will have to remain vigilant against the opposition, which has all possible resources at its disposal. Its next move could be against the Punjab government.

Prime Minister Imran Khan must have details of MNAs, who sold or did not vote for Hafeez Shaikh. He had removed 20 members of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly belonging to his party, who were allegedly paid Rs50 million each during the last Senate election. He cannot take action against deserters now, because he has a thin majority in the National Assembly. According to him, 15 of his MNAs had voted for Gilani. The ruling coalition has almost 19 more MNAs in the National Assembly than that of the opposition alliance. He will have to keep the deserters with him to stay in the government.

The government may not have won a majority in the Senate, but it is in a position now to call sessions of both Houses together to pass laws, which it has not been able to do since its installation. In this way, Prime Minister Imran Khan can reform the system and improve governance.