The recently held elections to the Senate of Pakistan to elect half of the members of the Upper House of the Pakistani parliament are significant in a number of ways and would have important consequences for democracy, the political system and political culture of the country.
This is, perhaps, for the first time that a government which is having a near two-thirds majority in the National Assembly of Pakistan has attained clear majority in the Senate and together is in a position that, with its allies, can pass any constitutional amendment in the country. Although the sitting federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has only three months left in its constitutional tenure of five years, in the remaining period it can pass unprecedented laws, if it so desires. Now it depends whether the PML-N would pass such laws, which it deems appropriate to address the key problems of the country including systemic and structural faults. At least from the rhetoric, the PML-N seems to be in a mood to come up with amendments and laws to address the problems of the system.
This is evident from one such statement by the founder of the PML-N and thrice prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, in which he said, “the time has arrived to address the ills, which have afflicted Pakistan for the last 70 years.” The political atmosphere, the judicial decisions which have gone against the person of Nawaz Sharif and polemics in the country are such that it is not difficult to deconstruct the meanings contained in the statements of the leadership of the PML-N. There is no doubt that the PML-N leaders are pointing fingers at the country’s security establishment and even judiciary for the systemic faults and failures. Against this political backdrop and the defiance of the PML-N it could be anticipated that the ruling party may come up with certain constitutional amendments and laws so as to reduce the powers and role of the establishment and judiciary. In this regard, open debate on defence and foreign policy and budgets could be made mandatory.
The government would also try to clip the wings of the superior judiciary. In this regard a constitutional amendment may be moved and, possibly, be passed to take away the power of judicial review, which under the constitution of Pakistan is an important power of the country’s superior judiciary. The insertion of the provision of judicial review of lawmaking in the 1973 Constitution was aimed at preventing the abuse of power by the executive and limit the lawmaking powers of the parliament so that the basic structure of the legal framework remained intact. If the PML-N government would introduce a constitutional amendment to revoke the power of judicial review and somehow pass it, this would be disastrous for the state of Pakistan. A political crisis of gargantuan proportions would unfold which would be very difficult to manage.
The PML-N, particularly its family-dominated core leadership, knows that in the present situation it seems improbable to save the skins of its leaders facing large-scale charges of corruption and abuse of power. Therefore, the party seems to have a strategy that if the Sharif family could not be protected the whole system should collapse. In other words, there have been efforts by the PML-N to bring down the whole political system, because the family-based ruling party apparently feels its prospects are really dim. To bring down the political system there are two important ways. The first is by mass mobilization of the people and the second is through legal and institutional means. The recent elections of the Senate has given the PML-N a comfortable majority in the Upper House and now on the basis of its strength in the National Assembly could take such measures that could catalyze the collapse of the system. The PML-N has also been threatening to bringing its supporters on the streets.
The PML-N could also use its numerical strength in both houses of the parliament and also its street power to introduce important legal measures, which may truly address the systemic issues and structural weaknesses. Only time would tell whether the PML-N and its leadership would go about taking decisions and making laws in the last 90 days of its government for the vested interests of the Sharif family or for the larger national interest. In case the lawmaking is in the wider national interest, other parties may also come to support the PML-N. If the PML-N introduced some much-needed constitutional amendments and laws by demonstrating political maturity it would have large-scale wholesome effects on the political culture of Pakistan. However, if history is any guide, then the PML-N almost always has given preference to the family and group interest over national interest.
The recent Senate elections were held at a time when Pakistani democracy is on the path to achieve a key victory by seeing at least the second government completing its constitutional tenure. The successful completion of the process of Senate elections has strengthened democracy in the country. The Upper House of Pakistan lends stability and continuity to the system. However, the questions on and criticism of the quality of democracy in Pakistan are, indeed, serious and substantial.
The way in which certain parties got their nominees elected as senators despite lacking the requisite number of members in the provincial assemblies, has exposed the weaknesses in our political system. The open horse-trading through which votes of MPAs were bought in the legislative assemblies of all the provinces, which serve as electoral college for senators, has demeaned the elections. They have revealed that ideology, party-affiliation and discipline do not have any significant role in today’s parliamentary politics of Pakistan. This is, indeed, an alarming situation. This has compelled many people to think that Pakistani democracy is a sham. Such happenings have adverse effects on the political culture of Pakistan.