Secret ballots and term limits

Attacking fundamental concepts, but inconvenient


Prime Minister Imran Khan’s commitment to democracy itself seems to be in doubt, for he has announced the taking of action against it in its name, by proposing to end corruption in Senate elections by sacrificing the secrecy of the ballot, just after he spoke of the limiting effects of term limits, by saying that term limits are too short.

This appears a contradiction of the ideas of the last Martial Law on tenures. Pervez Musharraf’s Eighteenth Amendment introduced the idea of placing a term limit, as in the USA, on chief executives, restricting them to two terms. It went a step further, by placing limits on a combination of provincial and federal offices. In the USA, gubernatorial terms are not counted towards term limits. One of the ideas prevalent in the parliamentary model is that there can be no restriction on any member who might enjoy the confidence of the House. The tenure of the House is fixed, not of the individual. Also, the tenure of the House is a maximum, not an absolute, for the House might be dissolved. Only the Senate cannot be dissolved.

The need to have Senators vote by open ballot is solely a problem with the KP Assembly, perhaps because a smaller number of MPAs are needed to elect one Senator. It is interesting that this problem has not arisen in Balochistan, where even fewer MPAs are needed. However, there has been some speculation that the PTI’s expected Senate choices are not going to be popular, as they will accommodate some of the presently unelected PM’s advisers and special assistants. Elected to the Senate, they will be able to take their place as full-fledged ministers, and be able to take charge of ministries. One glaring example is that of Dr Hafeez Sheikh, who was first inducted as PM’s Adviser on Finance in April 2019, but who was inducted as Finance Minister in December last year. Under the Constitution, he has six months to find a seat in Parliament, failing which he will cease to hold office.

Dr Sheikh has been in that position before, and the PPP had to get him elected to the Senate. The Senate route had been used before to get a seat for the Finance Minister, for without a seat in Parliament, and thus not in Cabinet, the Finance Minister cannot present the Budget, head the National Finance Commission, or either the Cabinet Committee on the Economy or the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council.

However, the Senate is not merely a place for the government to get seats for ‘men of business’, but also the House where the federating units (the provinces plus the Federal Capital Territory) have representation. That is why not only do the provinces elect an equal number of Senators, but the voters are the MPAs. The single transferable vote ensures that parties are able to get seats according to their strength.

It might be something of a criticism of democracy of some kind that KP Senators have monetized this, but then, voters in general election have demanded and obtained bribes. This does not seem to be a Subcontinental problem, but the UK experienced it when it still had rotten boroughs, where typically the ownership of certain properties carried the vote, and a constituency might thus have only a few votes, to be cast by certain property owners. These voters charged a fee for voting for someone, and thus it was possible to buy a seat in Parliament until 1832, when the rotten boroughs were abolished. This was also a time when it was possible for certain grandees to be the property owners, and thus have seats in Parliament in their pockets. These seats were not sold, but used to accommodate ‘men of business’, who actually ran the government, because the grandee could not be expected to soil his hands with the actual business of government. Thus Pitt the Elder sat for the ‘pocket borough’ of Old Sarum, which had been given to him by the Whig grandee the Duke of Portland, who was always a prominent member of Pitt’s Cabinets, but never held a portfolio which made him do any work.

Imran regards Hitler as someone who carried out a successful U-turn. However, it seems that he sees something else to emulate: Hitler came to power in 1933 by democratic means, and then proceeded to demolish democracy.

There is the argument that since MPAs are elected on a party ticket, they should vote for the party’s nominees. But ensuring this by ending the secrecy of the ballot seems like the thin edge of the wedge. Elections are not free if it is known how voters voted. Where voters have sold their votes in India, but then voted otherwise, terrible vengeance has been extracted, including burning the offending locality, thus punishing the innocent along with the guilty. It might be possible to bypass the MPAs by having seats allocated not according to party MPAs, but party vote; but then the problem of independents arises. Independents usually join the Treasury, because that is what they have been elected to do, or because they ran because their party had made an awful ticket award. Independents do not have a common purpose. For the election of women on reserved seats, independents have to join a party, but can they make their votes be counted as having been cast for a particular party?

It is almost as if the problem is not the corruption entailed, so much as the fact that someone else is making money. This is consistent with the PTI stance against corruption, which seems more based on envy rather than honesty of purpose.

Imran is also chafing at the term limit. One is reminded of the British example, when its first (and longest serving) Prime Minister (1720-41), Sir Robert Walpole, proposed that the tenure of Parliament become infinite, and only by-elections were to be held in future. He was stopped by a backbench rebellion, and no British PM has expressed such a wish again. Pakistani PMs have, though, even though they should count themselves fortunate that they are not trammeled by term limits. Though they do not have term limits, they do have to have their mandates renewed. Perhaps the longest current tenure is the single six-year term of the Mexican President. The French President had a seven-year term, but only François Mitterrand won two. The term limit has been reduced to five years.

However, Imran seems a little over-anxious, for the dread of an election, which is very real for politicians, is setting in a little early, unless Imran knows something no one else does. And there is going to be an early dissolution. Imran seems too desperate even to conceal his thoughts, which he shares with most politicians, and which are undemocratic.

Imran might keep in mind that the only office which do not require renewal of the mandate is that of the Pope. The election even to that is by secret ballot. The Pope’s term is limited either by death, or by his own retirement, as Pope Benedict XIV did when he abdicated at the age of 85. He is still alive at 93.

Imran is not yet 70, being only 68. However, having no limit on a term is something of a deception with voters. It means not knowing how long a tenure may last. Like Pope John Paul I, who became Pope in 1978, only to die after 33 days in office. No British PM yet has died in office, and the last US President to do so was Franklin Roosevelt at the beginning of his fourth term in office.

Imran regards Hitler as someone who carried out a successful U-turn. However, it seems that he sees something else to emulate: Hitler came to power in 1933 by democratic means, and then proceeded to demolish democracy.


  1. Modi is praying day and night that SH IK will continue for at least two more terms as SH PM and Rahul Gandhi to continue heading Congress Party!
    Who is the best candidate to destroy Pakistan other than IK? Already he has achieved so many milestones! Foundation stone for Worlds biggest WHITE ELEPHANT Dalmer Bhasha, decimating all pilots and famous PIA, PSM, loosing famous ROOSEVELT HOTEL & other Foreign Assets including Paris, sheepishly paying penalties to get back his own Aeroplan, Mortgaging Parks, roads, roads, railways, all and kept women folk for last as reserve to sell to Chinese?

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