Pakistan flag. Photo: Flickr
Pakistan flag. Photo: Flickr

Despite all the rumors and speculation, democracy in Pakistan has been retained, even if it’s on a smaller scale than in the past. Elections for the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, did take place last Saturday, as scheduled. This, even if a small one, is indeed an achievement.

The Senate of Pakistan is a body of 104 seats. Each lawmaker serves a term of six years. Since the constitution of Pakistan does not allow the dissolution of the Senate, not all of the senators are elected for the same term, but rather half are elected in one term, and the other half after three years.

A total of 52 seats were vacant for the recent polls, formerly held by lawmakers elected in 2012.

The constitution of Pakistan grants sweeping powers to the Senate, some of which are not even bestowed to the lower house, the National Assembly. The Senate holds the power of converting a bill passed by the National Assembly into law, and only then is it enforced throughout the country.

How senators are elected

Senators are elected by a procedure laid out by the constitution of 1973. Unlike the direct voting for National Assembly seats, the March 3 elections for the Senate was a process whereby 46 lawmakers had to be voted in by the members of provincial assemblies, two by the National Assembly members, and four by lawmakers representing the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

The voting process is complex. Each of the voters, who are members of national or provincial assemblies, casts a single ballot for all of the candidates they would like to see elected as a senator, in order of their preference (1, 2, 3 and so on). The votes are then counted, and after a candidate receives the minimum number of votes to get elected, his or her excess votes are transferred to the lower-priority candidates (as indicated by each voter on the ballot paper). The candidates who receive the fewest number of votes are eliminated.

This process continues until all the vacant seats are filled.

Major criticisms of the Senate polls

The secret balloting in this system has been criticized. This allows lawmakers to vote for candidates other than those preferred by their party. This is where the prominent game of horse-trading come into play.

This system also attracts many rich independent candidates to contest for a Senate seat.

Despite the calls for a judicial coup (a military and judicial alliance) by the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and its leader and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the party emerged as the largest in the Senate after the election.

Similarly, the second position was grabbed by the Pakistan Peoples Party. But what’s interesting to note is that all the parties have complained of the involvement of money in the Senate electoral process, and just like other issues, blaming each other for election rigging and selling of votes to the highest bidder.

As we have seen in the past, quite a few elected representatives have been disqualified under Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which state that to qualify as a member of Parliament, a candidate must be “honest” and “trustworthy.” But what about the honesty of those senators who have been elected for the seat of such an important institution of the country by spending a huge sum of money? Do they qualify to be a member of the Senate amid foul cries of horse-trading?

A probable solution to end this chaotic phenomenon of vote-selling in the Senate elections is being widely discussed. One possible solution, toward which the political parties should work and amend is direct representation in the Senate.

One possible way to end the practice of horse-trading in Senate elections is to amend the laws and introduce a method of direct representation. That is, the number of seats each party has gained through public voting in the national and provincial assemblies in the general elections they should determine the number of seats they are allocated in the Senate by the Election Commission of Pakistan.

Let’s suppose PML-N wins a majority in a national election. Then, under this amended system, a higher number of Senate seats should be allocated to that party, because its majority is due to the public votes, followed by the party that is in second position and so on.

Also, many political analysts and prominent politicians are calling for direct elections for the Senate. The chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, Imran Khan, proposed changing the system along these lines, stating that with the current procedure corruption is promoted at the highest level.

The Senate is an institution of democracy in Pakistan. If the system is to be improved, the practice of horse-trading must be addressed and stopped. The country needs a better Senate for the effective running of a democratic set-up, and surely an ear could be given to Imran Khan’s call for direct elections. Despite the role his party itself has played for nurturing this system, a positive suggestion from his end should be entertained.

Until now the major political parties have failed to fight together on such issues, because one way or the other, the current set-up supports them. But as Pakistan is on the verge of next general election, and the smooth transition of a democratically elected government is linked with powerful democratic institutions, the people deserve a better system and much stronger democracy.

Tuba Athar Hasnain is a Pakistan-based journalist. She has worked for The Express Tribune and for an online news portal, Meet News World, covering politics, current affairs and human rights. She has an MA in Journalism and communications. She can be reached on twitter @AtharTuba.

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