he Senate Election has suddenly become a battleground where the opposition has banded together under the flag of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and the government and its small party-allies under the banner of the PTI. Lurking in the shadows along the flanks of the PTI – because they are not supposed to be party-political – are a range of state institutions ready to ambush the PDM and its constituents. Prominent among these are NAB, FIA, FBR and IB, all of which have been roped in to victimize the opposition and knock it down. More ominously, despite avowals of “neutrality”, the master Selector-Miltablishment is still pulling all the strings to ensure “suitable” results, like it did after successfully blackmailing the PPP when the election of the Senate Chairman was held three years ago and like it did when a vote of no-confidence against the same Senate Chairman was defeated last year by 14 “defecting” opposition Senators. It may be recalled that when the Senate elections were held in 2018, Imran Khan accused nearly two dozen PTI MPAs from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa of taking money to sell their votes either to the opposition or to their own party colleagues against the decisions of the PTI leader.
Why, the question has been asked, is there such an outcry today by the government and its allies against the buying and selling of Senate votes when yesterday exactly the opposite sentiment was lauded by them? Indeed, Shibli Faraz, the loudest PTI mouthpiece, was delirious with happiness after the vote of no-confidence against the Senate Chairman was defeated last year because the Senators “with a conscience” had broken opposition party lines to do the government’s bidding.
It seems routine mundane reasons are behind such double-speak: it is kosher to buy and sell votes or rig elections if it suits the established powers, and criminal if it doesn’t. There’s not a shred of doubt that the RT system was deliberately “broken down” on the night of vote counting in the general elections in 2018 so that the PMLN could be cut down to size. Yet not a leaf stirred in the Election Commission of Pakistan to object or rectify the situation. Much the same ostrich attitude was adopted by the ECP during other electoral exercises since then.
But now there’s added urgency and priority in the developing situation in the Senate. If the PTI and its allies lose a few seats to the opposition beyond its proportional due, the government won’t be able to marshal a majority in the upper house to confirm legislation in the lower house where it has a majority, leading to loss of confidence in its ability to govern. This is a distinct possibility for two reasons: the PTI ranks are fomenting revolt against their leadership for a variety of reasons; and the opposition is keen to demonstrate its united prowess as a prelude to the Long March which in turn is billed as a prelude to an in-house change (where loyalties will once again be available for transfer). But that’s not all. At stake is the very viability of the Hybrid Political System hoisted by the Miltablishment which depends critically on its control of parliament and legitimizing organs of the state.
Enter the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Although the constitution is crystal clear about the necessity of secret balloting in the Senate elections, the government has petitioned the apex court to opine whether or not the conditionality can be waived without a constitutional amendment requiring a 2/3 majority of both houses of parliament (which it cannot muster). Two developments ring alarm bells in this regard. First, the President has promulgated an Ordinance to require open voting in the Senate elections even before the SCP has given any final opinion in this regard. Second, with only a couple of weeks or so to go before D-Day, the SCP is posing leading questions and making interpretations that seem to challenge the clear intent of the constitutional clauses that stipulate secret balloting. An overwhelming body of opinion in the bar and civil society claims that either way – by eventually holding against the constitution or delaying its judgment in upholding it – the net effect of the SCP’s “hearings” so far is to restrain Senators from straying too far from their masters, their “conscience” that so warmed the cockles of Shibli Faraz’s heart not so long ago be damned.
The role of the Attorney General of Pakistan and the Election Commission of Pakistan also merits comment. The former is supposed to assist the SCP in making just and independent decisions. In this case, however, he is doing exactly the opposite. But the ECP seems to be showing spine in resisting the notion of open balloting. Is that why, ask critics, the CEC and his legal eagles are on the ropes, receiving a hammering from the bench?
History recalls the Lawyers Movement for the Restoration of the Judiciary with some pride because it paved the way for the ouster of a military dictator. It also empowered the judges to be independent of the executive. Unfortunately, however, that “independence” soon thereafter degenerated into an unaccountable tyranny. CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry used his sweeping powers to oust an elected prime minister from office for “contempt of court”, an unprecedented decision in the annals of justice. A subsequent CJP, Asif Saeed Khosa, was more outrageous, knocking out another popular prime minister on the pretext of an unreceived, piddling, salary. A third CJP, Saquib Nisar, was a small man who deluded himself that he was a towering Baba Rehmataya, slashing all who came before him like The Joker in the Hollywood hit movie. Recently, ex-SC judge, Sheikh Azmat Saeed, has brazenly confirmed his anti-opposition and pro PTI-Miltablishment bias.
The current leaders of the SCP have choices to make. If they bend before the Miltablishment and reaffirm the Hybrid Political System that is based on lies, deception and despotism, they will have the unique “honour” of finally burying the glorious Lawyers Movement in the dustbin of history.