First the positives. It is a good thing that Baluchistan got its first Chairman Senate. It has a symbolic value for the strengthening of the federation and to counter the narrative by some international sponsors that Baluchistan wants separation. The successful conclusion of Senate elections is a step forward towards general elections. Completion of tenure by the second elected civilian government is another positive. The continuation of political institutions will enable the gradual introduction of reforms and help create a balance of power between state institutions. PTI needed some sort of win to boost their party morale after a surprise loss in NA-154 Lodhran by-election. PPP wanted to demonstrate that they can tackle PML N with a helping hand. PML N will further promote the narrative that there is a conspiracy to throw them out of power corridors and appeal to masses to help them thwart it.
Now coming to the negatives that need our attention. Election of an independent as Senate Chairman is a major dent in the relevance of political parties as bargaining platforms. For last many years I have written repeatedly that control of political parties by civilian dictators suit undemocratic stakeholders as they can be maneuvered. Election of an independent as Senate Chairman was not possible until civilian dictators Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan were fully on board to deliver the required number of votes. There are many wrongfully blaming establishment engaging in political engineering. They will always try to engage in politics in almost every country but they can’t do it unless politicians themselves are willing to work with them.
Supporters of Asif Ali Zardari and Imran Khan are distributing sweets and celebrating the defeat of PML N in the Senate Chairman election. But it is a win of civilian dictators and loss of political parties. The Senate Chairman elections is a win for Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari but a loss for PTI and PPP. A large number of PPP members wanted Raza Rabbani to become PPP candidate for Chairman Senate but Asif Ali Zardari put his foot down. Similarly, in PTI, the majority of senators were hesitant to join hands with PPP especially since they were projected as a corrupt party by Imran Khan himself. Imran Khan was telling the nation every day that Mr. Zardari is as corrupt as Nawaz Sharif and there is no way there can be an alliance with them. Personally, I don’t think any party is corrupt as a whole but may have corrupt elements in it. I am a supporter of collaboration between political parties. I was constantly in touch with PPP team and suggested to them to support either Raza Rabbani or our proposed Hasil Bazenjo. I also proposed to them that if they suggest a name of a candidate from Baluchistan that is from a political party we will consider it but supporting an independent will cost them in the long term. But then a glue was found to bind PTI/PPP together to make an independent win. Some are suggesting it is the same glue that formed IJI and many other alliances in the past. Both PTI and PPP contributed in sending a message that they can sell the party to independent which is detrimental to the democratic institutions.
The Charter of Democracy signed by PML N and PPP produced the 18th amendment which has clauses that give extraordinary powers to party heads. The Senate elections have formally ended Charter of Democracy and we are heading towards more polarized politics in the foreseeable future. This gulf between parties is further widened by refusing to appreciate the point of view of the other and use of derogatory language towards each other. The incident of throwing ink and a shoe is a symbolic manifestation of intolerance. In such environment how can alliances be formed and compromised reached which is a necessary component of the political process?
The independent winning Chairman Senate, as well as a civilian dictatorship in parties, will have an impact in 2018 general elections. There is an expectation that a large number of independent candidates, especially in rural baradari controlled areas, will be encouraged to contest elections. This trend was evident in local government elections as well when a substantial number of independent candidates won. This will fragment the next parliament and open doors for manipulation by undemocratic stakeholders further increasing their influence and undermining parliament. This interference in legislation, political process and governance will be detrimental to national progress. To discourage this trend was one of the main reasons I did not support the election of an independent to a high-profile position of Senate Chairman.
PML N is blaming PPP and PTI becoming instruments to undermine democracy but they forget that most damage to institutions is done by Nawaz Sharif himself. The indifference towards parliament and due process has damaged governance, created conflict among institutions, and undermined the accountability of the executive during his tenure. Their family control of a large party is also one of the key reasons parliamentarians are willing to sell their votes if it sells their self-interest.
It is yet to be seen how masses will react to the horse-trading committed by political parties in Senate elections. Asif Ali Zardari has shown that he can buy MPAs but it is not clear whether he can convince voters to give a mandate to PPP at the ballot boxes. Imran Khan by joining hands with PPP has conceded that he can’t defeat PML N without an alliance. Chatter on social media suggests that masses are disappointed with politicians but still want democratic process to continue. They support pressure on politicians by the judiciary and special interest civic groups to improve governance, convert political parties into institutions, and force state institutions should work together. The ink and shoe attacks on politicians were condemned by all which signifies they still have expectations from them. The win by an independent is a wake-up call for political parties to put their acts together if they want to stay relevant to the process.
By Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi