Takeaways from the Senate circus

“Every magic trick consists of three parts, or acts. The first part is called The Pledge; the magician shows you something ordinary. The second is called The Turn; the magician takes the ordinary something and makes it into something extraordinary. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call the The Prestige”.

These are lines from the timeless Christopher Nolan classic, The Prestige. After this week however, one could be forgiven for thinking these were written about the magic show that happened during Pakistan’s recent Senate elections. Asif Zardari, the greatest magician of Pakistan’s political arena, fielded Yousuf Raza Gillani as the joint candidate of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). The constituency for this particular Senate seat was the National Assembly of Pakistan where the government coalition obviously has a majority. In what was quite The Turn however, Gillani somehow managed to defeat the candidate of the ruling coalition Hafeez Sheikh – 169 votes to 164 – decisively seven votes were rejected. The hardest part of the trick, making Gillani the chairman of the Upper House is yet to be accomplished, but after the sorcery that was on display this week, this is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Like most magic tricks however, there is a dirty little secret behind this trick too. As has happened in numerous prior Senate elections, members of Pakistan’s Parliament were purportedly bribed to vote for Gillani. Allegedly tens of millions of rupees were paid per vote, Maryam Nawaz however claims it was her party’s ticket for the next general elections that was used as bribe to lure the treasury MNAs to vote for the opposition candidate. While videos of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa MPAs accepting bribes during the 2018 elections were still making the rounds, a new video surfaced showing Gillani’s son coaching government MNAs on how to deliberately waste their votes in the Senate elections. Other audio clips allegedly show Ministers of the Sindh government promising money in return for deliberately wasted votes. This is not the first time members of the Parliament have sold their loyalties in return for a few million rupees. This practice dates back to the Changa Manga era of Pakistani politics, about three decades ago. The decade of 1990s was replete with example after example of shameless horse-trading, floor-crossing and lota-cracy. In 2006 however, tired of playing these filthy tricks the two mainstream political parties of Pakistan got together and signed the CoD (Charter of Democracy). Clause 23 of the CoD demanded that to eliminate corruption all votes for Senate will be by open identifiable ballot. It is telling however, that last month the same parties argued against open identifiable ballot in a landmark case before the Supreme Court, only to pave the way for floor crossing and corruption in the 2021 Senate elections.

Now that the spectacle is over, it would be worth examining what each of the key stakeholders gained or lost during the Senate elections.

Pakistan People’s Party

The PPP has made considerable gains during the last few months. Gillani, a PPP leader, was fielded as the joint opposition candidate despite PMLN being the largest opposition party. This is not just of symbolic value; the PPP’s strategy of staying within the system to weaken the government (as opposed to mass resignations) seems to be gaining more currency. In fact, the PPP’s strategy of fielding Gillani has brought the PDM its only major victory so far since the alliance was created nearly six months ago. Moreover, PPP has essentially neutralised its erstwhile archrival by convincing the PMLN to follow Asif Ali Zardari’s strategy and vote for his candidate, the same person for whose disqualification the PMLN had worked so hard less than a decade ago. If Gillani wins the election for Chairman Senate, Asif Zardari will have pulled off one of the greatest heists in Pakistan’s parliamentary history. As far as allegations of corruption, bribery, and stealing votes is concerned, the party’s leadership is well past the point where concerns of such kind of disrepute would matter.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz

Currently the PMLN’s only objective is to weaken and eventually oust Prime Minister Imran Khan. For that, the party is pretty much willing to pay any price it seems. By supporting the candidate who was clearly (albeit through his agents) indulging in stealing votes, PMLN has dented its own narrative of ‘Vote Ko Izzat Do’. The leading opposition party that used to lecture the government about free, fair and transparent elections reneged on its demand of open identifiable ballot and ceded moral high ground when it brazenly supported horse-trading and floor-crossing. It is indeed unusual that a party despite being in the opposition is being accused of indulging in corrupt practices to strengthen its position in the Parliament, such accusations have historically only been reserved for the ruling parties. More importantly, eventually PMLN and PPP will have to contest elections against each other, and whatever support PMLN is extending to Zardari’s PPP today will come back to haunt the party in Punjab where PMLN has previously successfully used the Zardari boogeyman to bag votes.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf

In the government’s two and a half year tenure, the upset defeat in the Senate elections has by far been the biggest political setback for the PTI. It has dented the government’s standing to the point where the prime minister has been forced to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly in what appears to be a damage control move. Even though Prime Minster Imran Khan has now received that vote of confidence from the National Assembly, clearly all is not well within the ruling coalition and this defeat should serve as a wakeup call for the PTI. While the PTI has not resorted to the traditional government tactics of bribing opposition MNAs and MPAs for Senate elections, such good deeds rarely go unpunished in Pakistani politics. If the strategy was to play the game fairly, then the government should have ensured fairness through timely legislation enforcing open balloting, or at the very least should have been able to retain the votes of the MNAs belonging to the ruling party itself.

The Establishment

By staying neutral for the Senate elections, the establishment has gained on three counts. Firstly, this will assuage the opposition’s concern about the establishment’s interference in politics, thereby taking the heat off the establishment that had taken unprecedented flak during the PDM’s recent public gatherings. Secondly, it is clearer than ever to both the opposition and the government that without the establishment’s help the government will struggle to retain its own MNAs, forcing each to remain on the right side of the establishment. And lastly, this entire fiasco has discredited Pakistan’s political class and what passes for democratic process in the country; politicians buying and selling votes, teaching each other how to waste votes, indulging in horse-trading and floor-crossing, changing the principled positions they have held for decades for petty short-term gains, and celebrating corruption, bribery, and lota-cracy as democracy. Perhaps the greatest trick the establishment has lately pulled was to distance itself from the Senate elections.