Politicking Gone Wrong: Islamabad’s Senate Seat And The PTI’s Loss
As the PSL gets postponed for a month, the populace can rest assured, continue to be on the edge of their seats as the action happening seems to have shifted from the Karachi National Stadium to the National Assembly. And just like the PSL, the buildup to the eventual elections was as intense as they come; an unconstitutional ordinance, a resurgent politician amongst other aspects. Barring the cricket metaphors that both Imran Khan and Maryam Nawaz Sharif continue to lambast, the affair compared to the League, was a fairly quiet one. The National Assembly and the Provincial Assemblies voted to select candidates for the Senate seats, with the hotly contested Islamabad general seat being the major source of conflict and concern. With the Supreme Court visibly suggesting the unconstitutional element to the idea of open ballots; old rivalries, internal politics and the raucous blame-game resurfaced as the aftermath to the election results.
Stalwart politician and former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stood against the Advisor on Economic Affairs Hafeez Shaikh. With the ruling PTI holding more than a simple majority in the Assembly, Hafeez Shaikh was deemed by many experts as the likely winner, despite the apparent unity of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) in nominating a joint candidate for this particular seat. However, gauging the political rhetoric in the buildup to the elections and the Senate Ordinance, it is very clear that PTI itself anticipated Yousuf Raza Gilani prevailing over Hafeez Shaikh, citing the widespread ‘backdoor’ politics of money and political favours. Whether PTI had anticipated this adequately or not, the unitary politics of the government and the PDM’s resurgence posits several other immediate questions.
Yousuf Raza Gilani successfully grabbed 169 seats to Hafeez Shaikh’s 164, alluding to a visibly tight race. With such a narrow margin, the knee-jerk reaction of both the media and the political parties has been towards the enticing idea of political defection. With PTI having both constructed itself as a singular force, and with considerable backing from the political establishment, how did multiple MNAs manage to not only defect through wasting their vote, but also to vote for the opposing candidate? The ‘how’ part is easy; secret ballots with their readily available anonymity served as a safety valve from immediate consequences for these defectors. ‘Why,’ is the more concerning and nuanced query and offers a range of calculated guesses.
The PTI claims that this is merely a result of the PDM throwing money at candidates, a form of lobbying more colloquially referred to as ‘horse-trading’. This is a fairly common phenomenon especially in Senate elections that do not occur through popular enfranchisement. Yet the explanation is too reductionist, because it ignores fractures within the ruling party. The PDM has contended that these ‘dissenters’ had grown disgruntled with the rigid and hypocritical politics of the PTI, and have hence formed factions of their own, challenging the writ of the government through this ‘democratic’ act of voting in the Senate elections. Again, whilst the presence of internal factions and divisions is reasonably backed up with past incidents of individuals dissenting or even leaving the party altogether, the ideological claim is less substantiated and too idealistic to present a fair view of politicians’ allegiance or lack thereof to the tenets of democracy.
A closer look at the candidates and their histories offers us further explanations, albeit only speculatively. Hafeez Shaikh is one of Pakistan’s most important men, largely charged with revitalizing a dwindling economy after Asad Umar’s exit, but is also considered the prime negotiator with the IMF and the operative clauses of the deal itself.
Yet, this association with the IMF has oft acted as his Achilles’ Heel. Viewed by many traditional politicians as a technocrat – or worse, as IMF’s man rather than PTI’s – this representation has stuck. Not a traditional politician with major vote-banks, he has largely been perceived as an ‘outsider’ by the political networks and the media alike. It can be argued that this quintessential weakness of Hafeez Shaikh as a candidate is a crucial factor in PTI’s loss, yet it cannot account for the other side of the story: Yousaf Raza Gilani and the unprecedented support that he got from the political elite.
The trajectory of Yousuf Raza Gilani’s own politics is an interesting one. Serving as the Prime Minister to Asif Ali Zardari during the presidential form of government, Gilani remained a highly visible figure. From his various projects in southern Punjab and his eventual dismissal from office, Gilani remained in the public eye during PPP’s tenure. Interestingly, the PMLN was then the major opposition party and vehemently opposed Gilani, citing his corruption. Yet, PDM now choosing to nominate a joint candidate, especially one with shared history with the PMLN, served an imperative function. On paper, it showed the versatility of the opposition in setting aside their differences and choosing to nominate a strong candidate with an experience of running for office. But more deeply, it shows the strategic decision making on the part of the PDM in appearing as a united front, which is precisely why the PTI’s rhetoric has shifted from referring to the PDM as an ‘empty force’ to a more visibly confused and concerned attitude.
As Prime Minister Imran Khan calls for a vote of confidence in the National Assembly on Sunday, the ranks of the ruling party appear to be more divided than ever. And whilst the vote of confidence can act as a powerful assurance of party loyalty through the show of hands, the message right now is very clear: the PDM is a force to be reckoned with and Imran Khan’s relatively smooth tenure is perhaps not going to be as smooth as anticipated.