This article was published in Dawn on February 03, 2018 and is available at the following link
WITH the announcement of a polling date for 52 seats of the 104-member Senate by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), the uncertainty about the Senate election, and the electoral process in Pakistan in general, has almost come to an end. Nearly each time the country goes through the process of electing half of its senators in a three-year cycle, an air of uncertainty and whispers of conspiracy dominate.
The reason is that a party or a set of parties that have done well in the preceding provincial and National Assembly elections are set to strengthen their position in the Senate gaining greater legislative leverage in the upper house election. Since conspiracy theories proclaim that a strong political party dominating both houses of parliament is not desirable, there are endless forecasts of some trick or the other to derail the process by dissolving the assemblies which act as the electorate for the Senate election.
Such rumours were stronger this time in the case of the upcoming 2018 Senate election after the ouster of prime minister Nawaz Sharif generated an air of uncertainty about the continuity of the system. The change of the leader of the house in the Balochistan Assembly less than two months before the Senate election and the forecasts about the dissolution of the provincial legislature by the new chief minister lent further credence to conspiracy theories of disruption in the Senate election.
Despite the setbacks, there are many signs of a maturing democratic order.
The ECP, probably sensing this anxiety in the public, announced on Jan 23 that it would announce the election schedule on Feb 2 but went on to announce March 3 as the polling day on Jan 29. Returning officers have also been appointed and it seems that the formal process has finally been initiated. Even the political parties which were considered sympathetic to the idea of dissolving assemblies ahead of the Senate election have started inviting applications from prospective candidates for Senate membership.
Pakistan’s electoral calendar crossed another milestone on Jan 31 as no by-election for the assemblies can be held for the seats that become vacant after this date which corresponds to “no later than 120 days before the term of that assembly is due to expire”, according to Article 224 (4) of the Constitution.
No one can say with certainty that ‘accidents’ cannot happen during the journey of democracy after these developments but apparently the democratic process seems to have turned a corner after the announcement of the Senate election schedule. Although there may be reasons to be sceptical about the performance of democracy in Pakistan, there are ample grounds to celebrate the robustness of the democratic process and tenacity of the democratic institutions which withstood extreme shocks and jolts, and the process, despite setbacks on many counts, continued.
The 2013 general election results were bitterly contested and rejected by many; there were unprecedented agitations and sit-ins in front of parliament for about four months during which the parliament building, the prime minister’s house and the state television head office were attacked. Then serious confrontation between the ‘security apparatus’ and the federal government has erupted more than once leading to a federal minister’s resignation on one occasion and the ouster of a federal minister, a special assistant and a senior government officer on the other.
We also saw the highly embarrassing public ‘rejection’ by ISPR of a communication issued by the Prime Minister’s Office; another sit-in near Islamabad by a religious party on an extremely sensitive issue leading to the forced resignation of another federal minister. There was the investigation of a sitting prime minister and his family members by an investigation team including representatives of ISI and MI, and the same prime minister’s disqualification by the Supreme Court; a trial of the former prime minister and his family by accountability courts under the supervision of the Supreme Court is now ongoing.
More recently, we witnessed the resignation of the Balochistan chief minister after 15 out of 21 ruling PML-N legislators mysteriously joined hands with the opposition for a no-confidence motion.
These are some of the major crises experienced by the current democratic dispensation during the past four and a half years.
Earlier, the PPP-led federal government during 2008-2013 faced somewhat similar challenges when prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court and tensions emerged between the armed forces and the federal government in the form of ‘Memogate’. The system, despite all shortcomings and shocks, continued and found a resolution to each crisis within the framework of the Constitution and the law of the land. There was a smooth transition each time a prime minister vacated his office on the orders of the apex court. Serious charges of election rigging in 2013 were investigated by a judicial commission of inquiry and the finding was accepted by both the parties concerned despite serious reservations expressed by one party.
These are signs of a maturing democratic system. The ECP is acting independently and at times pushing the government to act when it is slow to take decisions. The apex court pushed the federal and provincial governments to hold local government elections when both civil and military (for Cantonment Board elections) authorities were dragging their feet. The Supreme Court also made sure that the federal government held a population census in 2017 after a delay of several years.
The bitterly opposed political parties cooperated in the two houses of parliament to pass the 24th Constitutional Amendment allowing timely delimitation of the national and provincial assembly constituencies based on provisional census results. All political parties within parliament also came around to pass the Election Act 2017 which, despite some shortcomings, will ensure better quality polls in the future. The announcement of the Senate election schedule is the latest positive development. Let’s celebrate the march of democracy and let’s work to strengthen democracy, there being certainly ample room for improvement.