An unusual alliance has led to shock results in Pakistan’s Senate election, further undermining the ruling PML-N, and posing challenges for the country. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports

The defeat of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the recent election for the Senate’s chairman and deputy chairman has jolted the ruling party and prompted it to review its strategy for the coming general election.

But the results raised the spirits of the opposition parties. The unlikely alliance between the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), headed by former President Asif Ali Zardari, and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, was able to get its candidate Sadiq Sanjrani elected as the Senate chairman and Saleem Mandviwalla as deputy chairman, defeating the PML-N candidate Raja Zafarul Haq for the role of chairman and Usman Kakar, of PML-N-allied party PkMAP, for vice-chairman. It was a shock defeat, causing concern that some of the ruling coalition’s lawmakers had voted for the opposition candidates.

These polls for the Upper House of Parliament were significant, as the general election is now barely six months away. The assemblies will complete the five-year term in late May and the present government would then make way for a neutral caretaker set-up that would supervise the general election. The polls were also important as they gave the PML-N a chance to gain a majority in the Senate for the first time in many years. However, although it won more Senate seats than any other party, it failed to carry its allies along with it to win the offices of chairman and deputy chairman. If it had won these coveted positions, the ruling PML-N would have controlled both the National Assembly, where it has an absolute majority, and the Senate. But its plans were thwarted by the PPP – which has dominated the Upper House of Parliament in the past – and the PTI, which has, for the first time, won 11 seats in the 104-member Senate.

Imran Khan had pledged never to align with the PPP as he alleged it was run by a corrupt leadership. But in the end both the parties agreed to back the same candidate, Sadiq Sanjrani, because he belonged to Pakistan’s most under-developed province, Balochistan. This was the first time in Pakistan’s history that a senator from Balochistan has been elected as chairman of the Senate, and the purpose was to help end the deprivation of the people in the violence-wracked province. Balochistan has been suffering from a low-level, anti-state insurgency since 2006, when Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti was killed in an army operation ordered by the then military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Several small armed groups are fighting for an independent Balochistan state, while ethnic Baloch nationalists want greater autonomy for the province.

Sanjrani, a first-time senator who owns coalmines and belongs to Balochistan’s Chaghi district bordering Iran, was the lucky beneficiary of the consensus decision by opposition parties that it was time to elect someone from the province as Senate chairman. The move was backed by significant sections of the civil society, intelligentsia and the media. There are reports that Pakistan’s powerful military also endorsed the idea. However, the new Senate vice-chairman, businessman Saleem Mandviwalla, belongs to the PPP and is from the party’s Sindh province stronghold.

The PML-N’s defeat, despite being in power, doesn’t augur well for the party’s future at a time when its leadership is mired in controversy and is fighting a long legal battle to clear its name. The party’s founder, Nawaz Sharif, who was the country’s prime minister a record three times, is facing a number of court cases on corruption and misuse of power. There is little likelihood that his disqualification will end and he will be cleared to take part in the next general election.  His two sons, Hasan and Hussain, and daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, who is his political heir, are also facing court cases, while his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, has already been elected as the president of the PML-N in place of Nawaz Sharif and would be the party’s candidate for the office of prime minister if it were to win the next general election. However, Shahbaz may also become engulfed in court cases, which could damage his chances of becoming the next prime minister.

Other candidates for the premiership are 66-year-old Imran Khan, who has twice been a member of the National Assembly but has never held any administrative office, and 28-year-oldBilawal Bhutto Zardari – son of Asif Ali Zardari and the late Benazir Bhutto. A newcomer to politics, seeking to enter Parliament for the first time, Bilawal has little chance as his party, the PPP, is on the decline, with a diminishing vote-bank except in the Bhuttos’ home province of Sindh. Imran Khan, on the other hand, has emerged as a serious contender for the premiership but he would have to win Punjab from the Sharif family to fulfil his ambition of forming the next government. His party has been suffering from indiscipline and its provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has not performed up to expectations to serve as a model for voters in the three other provinces.

Pakistan’s newly elected Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani (l) and deputy chairman Saleem Mandviwalla
Pakistan’s newly elected Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani (l) and deputy chairman Saleem Mandviwalla

Imran Khan would benefit if the PML-N starts disintegrating in the case of Nawaz Sharif being convicted of the charges he faces, especially if its legislators start believing it will not be able to win power again. Despite speculation, the PML-N has stayed intact until now and followed the Sharif family through thick and thin, but the situation can quickly change as politicians in Pakistan are known to follow their instincts by joining parties with better chances of coming to power.

It is obvious that there is civil-military imbalance in Pakistan

Since his removal from power on July 28 2017,on the order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif has been increasingly critical of the judiciary for doing him an injustice. He has also hinted that the establishment – a term generally used to describe the military – is behind the judiciary’s action against him. Lately, though, he has expressed willingness to talk to all institutions, which apparently means the judiciary and the military, and political powers for the sake of strengthening democracy. Nawaz Sharif also made it clear that all the institutions should work within their constitutional limits, meaning that the powers of the elected government should not be encroached upon by others.

It is obvious that there is a civil-military imbalance in the country and all endeavours to correct it have failed. Elected civil governments have generally been weak and the political parties coming to power have largely failed to deliver when it comes to dispensing justice, overcoming corruption and improving governance. Due to Pakistan’s security problems, the military have gained a dominant role in defending and stabilising the country. The civil and military elite must work together to steer Pakistan out of its political, economic and security crises, yet it remains to be seen if Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N will be able to build trust with the other institutions, including the military, in order to overcome the challenges facing the country.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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