Horse-trading at the Senate

The heat is on and the money is said to be flowing. For today, Pakistan’s parliamentarians are all set to elect some 52 Senators. Just under half of these — 23 — are PMLN candidates that will have to run as independents following Supreme Court directions that stripped them of party tickets. This has prompted allegations from the top leadership of vote-rigging by another name.

Be that as it may, the ruling party is still on course to be the largest in the Upper House; despite all the odds. Yet lawmakers across the political divide have lamented how the politics of money is running the show. There is talk of different packages being on offer: from cash-only to cash-plus ticket. And according to those in the know, asking prices may or may not start at around the Rs30 million-mark.

This has prompted PTI chief Imran Khan to float the idea of Senators being subject to the popular vote. This, he believes, would circumvent the trend of big bucks being spent on horse-trading. Indeed, if this summer’s general elections bring his party to power, which Kaptaan says they will, one of the first priorities of at PTI government would be to make it so; all in the name of transparency. Presumably, though, these potential changes would require parliamentary backing. But that aside, the latter represents a rather muddied solution. For it effectively suggests that those lawmakers who are directly elected by the citizenry are not to be trusted to vote each other to the Upper House. The PPP’s Farhatullah Babar, for his part, has recommended the introduction of proportional representation as the most efficient way to counter horse-trading. In addition, the outgoing Senator and others have advocated an important precondition that would peg eligibility for Upper House elections to those voters who have been registered for a minimum of five years in a single province.

This makes more sense than Khan’s pointing to the US where the country’s Senators are directly elected. For this overlooks the very real phenomenon that sees excessive amounts of cash splashed on presidential election campaigns; which, in turn, blurs the lines between donors and votes-for-cash. This is one area where Britain fares marginally better. For it rejects the nouveau riche opulence of the American system of lobbying in favour of each party being accorded a three-minute political party broadcast on the Beeb. It is a different matter that parties such as Ukip may use official airtime to fudge figures on the National Health Service.

What Khan also needs to be mindful of is that political rallies as well as sit-ins do not come cheap; something that DJ Butt would likely be happy to vouch for. But this is not to single out PTI in this regard. All the mainstream parties are guilty of throwing money at cultivating personality politics as opposed to those in the national interest. And only when this changes will we have once and for all rooted out corruption in this country.  *

Published in Daily Times, March 3rd 2018.