The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is set to announce on Thursday (today) the schedule for holding Senate elections in the first week of next month. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, a controversy has surfaced regarding the procedures of holding the election: the government wants open ballot or show of hands in order to discourage horse-trading, a notorious trend damaging the credibility of the Senate as upper house of the parliament. Opposition, on the other hand, seems reluctant to stand by the government’s version.
Notably, the government has recently promulgated an ordinance to amend the election act 2017. The decision for introducing the presidential ordinance was taken after the opposition staged a demonstration in the National Assembly on Thursday and blocked the passage of the Constitution Amendment Bill, tabled by the government for holding Senate polls through the open ballot.
Earlier, Chairman Senate Sadiq Sanjrani has backed holding Senate elections via open ballot in his response to a reference pertaining to the matter filed by the government in the Supreme Court.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Balochistan governments have also backed the federal government’s opinion of holding open-ballot polls, while Sindh has rejected the idea.
A five-judge larger bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed and comprising Justice Mushir Alam, Justice Umar Ata Bandial, Justice Ijaz ul Ahsan and Justice Yahya Afridi, hearing the reference.
The apex court had issued notices to Advocate Generals, the Election Commission of Pakistan, Chairman Senate, Speaker National Assembly and the Speakers of provincial assemblies over the issue.
PTI to emerge as the winning party?
A total of 52 senators in the house of 104 are set to retire on March 11 on completion of their six-year term. They will also include four of the eight senators from the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). As the seats representing Fata will not be filled due to merger of the tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2018, the Senate strength will shrink to 100.
Therefore, polling will be held to elect 48 senators — 12 each from KP and Balochistan, 11 each from Punjab and Sindh and two from Islamabad. Polling will be held to elect seven members on general seats, two women and two technocrats in the four provinces. Besides, the election on one minority seat each in KP and Balochistan will also be conducted.
Over 65 per cent of the senators who are set to retire on March 11 after completing their six-year constitutional term belong to the opposition parties.
While the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf senators may double in numbers after the electoral exercise to reach 28 from existing 14, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is likely to be the biggest loser in terms of representation in the Senate as 17 of its 29 senators will retire next month and the party would be able to retain just five, taking the total strength to 17.
The Pakistan Peoples Party’s strength in the house will slightly come down from 21 to 19. Among the allies of the ruling party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement will be the only loser, with its party’s strength slipping down from five to three, while another ally, Balochistan Awami Party (BAP), will emerge stronger, with the number of its senators growing from 10 to 13.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, President of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, opines that “if the Senate election takes place in March 2021 as scheduled, the PTI is likely to emerge as the largest party in the house, displacing the PML-N from that position”.
It is, however, important to note that the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has announced to resign from the assemblies. PPP, led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is one of the parties rallying against the government. Syed Murad Shah, Chief Minister Sindh, may advise the dissolution of the assembly shortly ahead of the Senate election in March 2021 which may keep an entire province out of the election.
Mehboob writes that “in case this happens, it will be the first time that a province skips the Senate election cycle”. “Since there is no clear and explicit provision in the Constitution and the Elections Act regarding such a situation, the matter may end up in a court of law for resolution and interpretation of the Constitution,” he continued.
“This may become necessary also because fresh election of the chair and deputy chair of the Senate has to take place immediately after the March 2021 election and the absence of half the representation of a province may significantly impact the outcome of these elections,” he concluded.