By: Jan Odhano
JACOBABAD : Federal government and political parties must hold thorough consultations to reach a consensus decision on reforming the Senate election process instead of opting for hasty legislation without weighing its pros and cons, a Free and Fair Election Network (TDEA-FAFEN) statement said on Friday.
FAFEN considers it unwise to rush through a constitutional amendment for allowing an open ballot with only a month remaining for fresh elections. If the federal government decides to pursue this course, in that case, it should carefully and critically analyze whether or not its existing proposal for amendment in the Constitution’s Articles 59 and 226 served the purpose of bringing transparency and curtailing horse-trading and use of money in Senate elections. The proposed constitutional amendment, pending with the National Assembly since October 2020, may not offer a strong deterrence to vote-buying for Senate elections as it does not define any penalty for national and provincial lawmakers voting against the party directions. The proposed amendment may be made more purposive by including penal provisions against such voting in the relevant anti-defection clauses.
To make the proposed amendments to the Constitution and the Elections Act, 2017 more purposeful, the government and political parties may consider the Senate Committee of the Whole’s recommendations in its 2016 report on the “Mode of Elections of Members of Senate.” The report had recommended reforming the current election method through secret ballot and single transferable vote (STV) by printing the voter’s name on the ballot paper and allowing each party’s parliamentary leader to access the voting records of his or her party’s lawmakers after the declaration of results. In case a member is found to have voted against the party’s direction, the report had recommended considering it a ground of defection, suggesting to amend the Constitution’s Article 63A(1)(b).
The said report had the support of senators from both sides of the floor who had unequivocally called for reforming the current election mode. However, their opinions differed on whether to opt for indirect elections through an open ballot or consider more radical reforms, such as direct elections and proportional representation.
FAFEN suggests the political parties take a more democratic approach. It proposes exploring a direct election method for the Senate, which epitomizes the federation of diverse regions and may refer to the spirit of the Constitutional scheme of Senate, reflected in the constitution committee’s work. Its chairperson, late Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, had told the National Assembly on December 31, 1972, while presenting the committee report, “…the representation of political parties in the Senate has to be in the same proportion as they are represented in the Provincial Assembly.”
In this spirit, FAFEN proposes a more straightforward method to accurately reflect the political parties’ representation in the Senate in the same proportion as in the Provincial Assembly. The seats to the political parties in the Senate based on either their seats or votes polled in the last general election for the Provincial or National Assembly elections, as the case may be, will ultimately achieve the same purpose as expected from the open balloting proposal. However, such an approach would require synchronizing the frequency of the Provincial Assemblies and Senate elections, as the current scheme of Senate elections impedes the prompt translation of the people’s will expressed in the general election into establishing order in the state as required in the preamble of the 1973 Constitution. For instance, PPPP was the largest party in General Elections 2008 and made a coalition government in the center, but it had to wait until 2012 to enjoy a majority in the Senate. Similarly, PML-N came to power in 2013, but it secured a majority in the Senate in 2015. Similar is the incumbent PTI government’s case, which did not have enough numbers in the Upper House to translate its legislative promises into reality. All these governments had public mandates, but they had to live on a bargain for nearly half of their terms because they lacked a majority in the Senate. The elections of the latter were timed differently from general elections.
In such circumstances, the government and opposition parties should not avoid exploring distinctive approaches such as proportional representation if the existing indirect election method through secret and STV is considered to compromise the Senate’s fundamental constitutional design.