Pakistan Senate Elections: New Alliances in the Offing?

13 Feb, 2018    ·   5431

Sarral Sharma assesses the potential strategies of major political parties in Pakistan in the run up to the upcoming Senate elections

Sarral Sharma
Sarral Sharma
Senior Researcher, Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS)
Elections for 52 of 104 seats in Pakistan's Senate (Upper House) will take place on 3 March. There were apprehensions that certain 'powers' would either try to delay or stop the polls. Prevailing political uncertainty following the recent spate of protests, the delicate civil-military relations, allegations of corruption against parliamentarians etc make the Senate elections more crucial for all mainstream parties. More importantly, the National Assembly (Lower House) polls are due to take place later this year. Therefore, political parties may attempt to forge new alliances or revive old ones, possibly by indulging in 'horse-trading' with small yet crucial players to win majority seats in the Upper House. Chances are, new political alliances might emerge and there might be a change in the overall standing of the main parties in both houses. 

Current Senate Standings
52 of the total 104 members of the Pakistani Senate are retiring in March: 12 each from Balochistan and Sindh; 11 each from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP); four from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); and two from Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT). Those retiring in March include nine of the total 26 Senators from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N); 18 of 27 Senators from the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP); and only one of seven Senators from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is retiring in the coming month. Additionally, four out of eight Senators from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P) and all four Senators from the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) are set to retire.

Political Calculations of Major Parties 
PML-N is expected to gain seats despite the recent political upheaval in Balochistan in which PML-Q's legislator Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, along with dissident members of the ruling party, ousted Balochistan's Chief Minister, PML-N's Sanaullah Zehri.

Former Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif has been addressing political rallies across the country to expand, revive and retain the party's support base. For PML-N, winning the Senate is important for the following reasons: first, PML-N would be able to pass laws in the parliament with relatively lesser obstruction from the opposition parties. Second, it will be a personal victory for Sharif who has been under immense pressure from the judiciary and, allegedly, the security establishment.

Third, PML-N is keen to perform better in other provinces—Balochistan, Sindh and KP—to increase its chances of winning extra seats. To achieve this goal, the party will attempt a two-pronged strategy, i.e. to pursue legislators from opposition parties, and to prevent possible defections in Punjab. Lastly, the win will boost the morale of the party workers—who have been under pressure since the Panama Leaks episode—and to start preparations afresh for the general elections. 

Imran Khan's PTI is looking to nearly double its representation in the Senate. Due to the party's limited electoral influence in provinces other than KP, Khan may likely approach regional parties and dissident PML-N and PPP parliamentarians in Punjab and Sindh respectively to seek their support. In a new development, PTI and PML-Q have already announced to contest Senate polls together.

The PTI is riding on a high since its successful anti-corruption campaign against the ruling PML-N in the Panama Leaks case. Consequently, the party is confident of performing better in both the upcoming elections. The Senate polls can be viewed as a semi-final for Khan's PTI before the general elections that might take place in August. Nonetheless, PTI's main rivals, PML-N and PPP, may approach dissident legislators and opposition parties such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazlullah (JUI-F) or Quami Watan Party (QWP) to make an electoral dent in KP.

In Sindh, the ruling PPP's leader, Asif Ali Zardari, seems confident after the Balochistan episode as he boasted at a recent rally in Lahore, saying "remember whenever I have made a claim I have completed it. I told you I can end their government and it has happened." Indirectly, he is targeting PML-N which was left embarrassed after its elected government in the restive province was thrown out last month. The PPP clearly played an important role in the whole incident in addition to the security establishment's alleged involvement in toppling the PML-N government.

(In)famous for alleged horse-trading, Zardari may attempt to woo regional parties and dissident lawmakers in Punjab and KP assemblies to win seats as the maximum number of retiring Senators are from PPP. Although, numerically, PPP might be unable to make it to the top slot in the Senate, with the focus on the general elections, the party may attempt to forge political alliances outside Sindh such as with PML-Q in Balochistan and Pashtun parties in KP to outperform PML-N.

Looking Ahead
With this Senate election scheduled merely months ahead of the National Assembly polls, there are rising concerns among political parties of large scale defections. It is possible that some sitting state assembly members may shift party allegiances for monetary gains. Major parties have cautiously reviewed ground realities, charted their poll strategy, and have tasked provincial leaders to keep their parliamentarians in the loop to avoid defections. Buying and selling of political representatives is a possibility. However, the extent to which these parties may go to dominate the Upper House is yet to be seen.