Nothing much to change
The long awaited election of 54 members of the Senate, the upper house of the parliament, took place on March 2, enabling the PPP to emerge as the single largest political party in the Senate. The PML(N), the ANP and the MQM also made gains, becoming next three leading parties respectively. There was no surprise in this result because these parties were expected to lead in view of their standing in the provincial assemblies that constituted the Senate’s electoral-college.
The successful completion of the Senate election marks the realisation of one of the two goals set out by the PPP for 2012. The second goal is the national budget which is expected to be presented in late May for its approval by mid-June. This is going to be the election-budget and will set the stage for announcement of the election schedule in consultation with the federal coalition parties and the opposition, especially the PML(N).
The opposition political parties and a section of the media had been talking about the collapse of the PPP-led coalition government time and again since 2009. A number of definite dates surfaced in the media in 2011 when the military or the Supreme Court was expected to replace the federal government, including President Asif Ali Zardari, with an interim or technocrat government. The last deadline for the removal of the federal government passed in December 2011.
The results of the Senate elections have strengthened the position of the PPP in the political system. The recent by-elections to 10 national and provincial assemblies also showed that the PPP would continue to function as a political force in Pakistan.
The increased strength of the PPP in the Senate does not mean that its governance will improve. It is expected the muddle through to the next general elections before the end of the year. It will continue to face alienation within its party ranks and sharp criticism in the media but it is neither expected to collapse nor improve its performance. It may provide some economic relief to the common people in the next budget but it will not be able to address the structural problems of the economy.
It is easy to point out the deficiencies in the performance of the PPP-led federal government but there is no guarantee that its exit from power would significantly improve governance and salvage the economy. The opposition parties are no less short on strategies to address the current socio-economic and internal security problems. As a matter of fact, the PML(N), the main opposition party, is in power in the Punjab. Its performance is no better than that of the federal government.
The Senate has limited powers with no control over the budget, although it can recommend changes in the budget to the National Assembly. The latter is free to adopt or reject these recommendations. However, the PPP’s success gives a psychological boost to the party at a time when it is under strong pressure from the Supreme Court and, at times, from the military. The memo issue also haunts the federal government. Mansoor Ijaz, the author of the memo, has come out with a number of stories against President Zardari without providing concrete evidence. How could he get the information about the alleged communication between the army chief and the presidency regarding the May 2 American operation in Abbottabad? How could he claim to know about the flight of an F-16 aircraft? Either Mansoor is a fiction writer or so powerful that he gets confidential information both from Pakistan and the US?
This raises the issue about the nature of Pakistani state. Three Pakistani institutions, i.e. the military, the judiciary and the federal executive, are pre-occupied with one person’s statements whose credibility is yet to be established. The federal government is also faced with the pressure from the SC because of the contempt case against the PM. He faces the risk of being convicted for contempt of court. The SC has the constitutional and legal powers to remove an elected PM, thereby strengthening the tradition of removal of an elected prime minister by a non-elected institution.
However, if the coalition of four parties remains intact at the federal level, the political clout of the PPP will stay intact. It can get a new PM of its choice elected by the National Assembly who may continue with the present policies, including the issue of writing a letter to Swiss authorities.
The media and some opposition leaders have talked of the role of money for buying votes, although no concrete evidence has been provided in this respect. The role of money or manipulation can be possible where party loyalty is weak, as in Balochistan, or the electoral-college is too small, as in FATA. In other places, party loyalties have remained effective. The only exception was in the Punjab where a defector from the PML(Q) contested independently and defeated a PPP candidate because of his personal relations with some PPP members and the PML(N)’s desire to patronise defiance of PML(Q)’s leadership, the Chaudhrys.
Islamabad and the FATA are overrepresented in the Senate. Islamabad has four members and the FATA has 8 members. This representation needs to be rationalised. The most intriguing situation is in the FATA whose 8 senators (4 after every three years) are elected by 12 FATA members in the National Assembly. The smallness of the electoral-college creates the scope for easy manipulation and purchase of votes by money.
Purchase of vote by cash payment has to be distinguished from allocation of development funds to parliamentarian. Development funds are regularly given to all parliamentarians even if there are no elections. There is no concrete evidence available to suggest that votes were purchased in the Senate elections.
Politics is not expected to change much after the Senate elections. The federal government will continue with its survival struggle in the face of multiple challenges either from other state institutions and the opposition political forces or its own follies. Religious extremism and terrorism will continue to haunt governance and economic management.
This will continue to give enough opportunity to political critics, Islamists and private sector TV anchors to sermonise on the need of truthfulness, fair-play and corruption-free governance.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.