Focus on the Upper House

The whole PPP bears watching, not just Gilani

AT PENPOINT

Apparently, the Opposition has read too much into the victory of Yousaf Raza Gilani for the Islamabad Senate seat, for apparently it wants not just to make him Senate Chairman but also wishes to bring a no-confidence motion against Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. One result is that the PPP is spreading itself too thin, as its Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has suddenly become the pointman in the negotiations with the PML(Q), which is finding itself in the position of being the key to both opposition efforts.

While Gilani is undergoing a personal revival, the PPP hopes that his personal weight as not just a former Prime Minister, but also as a former Speaker of the National Assembly, will translate into his being elected Senate Chairman. The PTI is not just the largest single party in the Upper House, but it is the ruling party, and should have a majority, if all its allies are counted in. It almost seems as if the Gilani win has created a sense within the ranks of all civilian politicians, especially the opposition, that anything is possible. If the PDM members feel that Gilani can win, it indicates that the PTI might feel the same way; at least to the extent of it being a possibility that needs to be combatted, if not necessarily a certainty that must be accommodated.

If the opposition manages to dislodge the PTI and precipitate a general election, in which it achieves power, it will have to deal with a Senate in which the PTI is the largest single party at least until March 2024. The opposition may need a Senate majority less than the government, for it will not be committed to change, and will have less need to legislate. The PTI came to office as a government of change, and it found that it was hampered by its not having a majority in the Senate, and thus being unable to legislate. That in turn means that any government wishing to reverse the PTI’s actions does not have any legislation to reverse. This means that a Senate majority is meant to legislate, while a National Assembly majority is meant primarily to obtain power, and by retaining it through the ability to obtain a vote of confidence.

One of the major problems with the present system illustrated is the difference between popular sentiment and what happens in Parliament. The theory is that public sentiment is to be tested only at fixed intervals, varying from the two-year term of the US House of Representatives to three years for the New Zealand and Australian legislatures to four years for US Presidents to five years for most Westminster-style parliaments (including Pakistan, India and the UK). In Westminster-style systems, there is a provision for an earlier dissolution, if sentiment is to be tested earlier.

The PDM did not oust the PTI by electing Gilani Senator, but if it gets him elected Chairman, it might persuade the powers that be that it might be time to go back to the drawing-board. And that would lose Imran all the lost ground he gained by obtaining a vote of confidence

However, there seems no way of changing a National Assembly which has grown so exceedingly unpopular as to have exceeded its mandate, in the middle of its tenure. There may be votes of confidence or no-confidence, to change the government, but not to hold a re-election. One solution was the old Article 58(2b), which allowed the President to dissolve when he felt an ‘appeal to the electorate was necessary’. Of course, that meant he disagreed with the PM on that point. And since he appointed the service chiefs in his discretion, that made him a powerful figure indeed. Do we need to go back to those days?

To take an example, while fuel prices are revised fortnightly, if there is a sudden spike in fuel prices, the government can always hike prices ahead of schedule. There is no parallel arrangement for the Assembly. That Assembly is actually a snapshot of the opinion of the electorate on Election Day; if that opinion changes rapidly before the end of the tenure of that Assembly, there is no method of getting a fresh election prematurely.

Perhaps the reason is that there is no way of judging whether an election is needed, short of no individual can be trusted, as the experiment with the President showed. The Prime Minister is trusted, because his advice to dissolve means the end of his government, and possibly the end of his political career. But he is not likely to dissolve because he is unpopular. Like Mr Micawber, he is ever hopeful that something may turn up. If he had his way, there would never be an end to the tenure. The opposition, like the present one, is always certain that the government has failed and there should be a fresh election. The government disagrees: if it didn’t, the PM would advise dissolution.

The underlying problem is that the PTI has lost popularity because it has not provided the answers to the problem which it was elected to solve: the economy continues to slide downhill. The PTI won the 2018 election because it had propounded the thesis that the PML(N) and the PPP were robbing the Treasury, which led to economic progress being stalled. If there was proper accountability, the economy would improve. Plus the looted money would brought back.

Either the PTI has not carried out enough accountability, or its thesis was wrong. However, the PDM might lash out at the PTI for mismanaging the economy, but it has been careful not to commit itself to any solutions. Its components do not necessarily have a much better record than the PTI of providing better government. Therefore, the PDM is relying not so much on trust as on hope. However, that is not necessarily a bad strategy. After all, that is what the PTI itself relied on in its 2018 campaign. The PDM relies on the PTI being perceived as ‘no different’. From whom? That question causes some embarrassed foot-shuffling and indistinct mumbles.

One of the effects of Gilani’s in is that the Senate can no longer be depended on to find a seat for ‘men of business’ who wish to avoid the hurly-burly of National Assembly elections. Imran has been criticised for having a large number of unelected advisers. But the attempt to have Dr Sheikh elected, as well as the successful one to get Dr Sania Nishtar elected, showed that part of the reason was not being able to find seats in Parliament for them.

The Senate has traditionally provided a place where the ruling party could bring in ‘men of business’, and Dr Sheikh himself had been inducted in the Cabinet, ironically headed by Gilani, but had been already a member of the Senate, to which he had been elected, so that he could be brought into the Cabinet as Privatization Minister.

Gilani’s election is a little late, for one Indian Prime Minister (Dr Manmohan Singh) chose to be in the Upper House. Of British PMs, Benjamin Disraeli was only two years into his term when he accepted elevation to the Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield. He was the second-last last British PM to have been a member of the Lords rather than the Commons. In India, the Constitution has room for a PM from the Upper House; in Pakistan, it does not. Gilani is thus entering the House as an end to his career. In that sense, the PPP needs him to win more than he does himself.

Whether he wins or not, there is talk of a rupture being created within the PDM by the PTI taking the PPP into its government. This is not impossible, for it would preserve the PPP’s Sindh government. It would force the PTI into contortions about corruption, but that party has proved flexible in the past.

The PDM did not oust the PTI by electing Gilani Senator, but if it gets him elected Chairman, it might persuade the powers that be that it might be time to go back to the drawing-board. And that would lose Imran all the ground he gained by obtaining a vote of confidence.

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